For the first time, Speaker Nancy Pelosi must deal with the ethics scandals surrounding Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) as the political winds threaten her majority.
Throughout 2009, Pelosi (D-Calif.) defended Rangel (D-N.Y.), refusing to remove him as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. But 2010 brings a new dilemma for Pelosi in the wake of the ethics committee finding that Rangel violated House rules.
Few Republicans last year predicted that they could take back the House. But now, the GOP feels like it has a chance, and so do independent campaign analysts.
Rangel has been weakened by the new ethics panel finding. Politically vulnerable Democrats, including Rep. Bobby Bright (D-Ala.), have called for Rangel to relinquish his gavel. There are likely to be more Democrats who will follow suit.
Late last year Pelosi exuberantly described herself as back in full “campaign mode,” confident that Democrats could tackle tough issues of reforming healthcare and bolstering the economy and retain “a strong majority” after the 2010 elections.
Two and a half months later, Rangel’s ethics woes are again snatching headlines as Democrats' elections prospects are looking grim as healthcare, the economy and the war in Afghanistan continue to vex the party in power.
Over the last year and a half, as ethics allegations piled up around, Pelosi stood by Rangel, a decorated Korean War veteran and one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).
On Friday, one day after the House ethics committee admonished Rangel for improperly accepting reimbursement for two trips to the Caribbean, Pelosi continued to stick by Rangel, but there were some cracks in the armor.
Pelosi made some points in his favor though also said she was taking a wait-and-see approach to what else the ethics committee will say about a host of other, more serious allegations still pending against him.
Pelosi noted that Rangel did not “willfully” break the rules of the House, which she said was an important point of the House ethics committee’s findings.
She carefully parsed her next point: “There’s more to Mr. Rangel’s situation, and I look forward to hearing [from] the ethics committee on that.”
Appearing on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, Pelosi said it was not her place to interfere in any investigations of the matter and stressed she would not get involved politically.
"But the fact is, is that what Mr. Rangel has been admonished for is
not good," Pelosi said. "It was a violation of the
rules of the House. It was not something that jeopardized our
country in any way."
Pelosi and other Democrats are urging swift ethics committee action on the entire Rangel matter and they would like to get it behind them as soon as possible. Even the most optimistic Democrats are bracing for losses in November’s elections, and party leaders are well aware of the damage a lingering ethics cloud can do at the polls. The last two times the House majority changed hands, in 1994 and 2006, ethics issues played pivotal roles.
Even before the Rangel ethics scandal resurfaced, the political climate looked bleak for Democrats. Democrats are defending 53 of 59 “tossup” or "leaning" races, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Americans are telling pollsters they are angry with both parties in Congress, but because Democrats are in the majority, they are playing defense this cycle. Congress’s job approval of 18 percent, according to a Gallup Poll earlier this month, is 10 points lower than in February 1994, the year Republicans took control of both chambers in Congress.
Asked Friday whether the ethics committee action against Rangel was taking a political toll, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said only that he wants the ethics committee to finish its work on Rangel “expeditiously.”
“The report speaks for itself,” Van Hollen said. “The ethics committee needs to move expeditiously to render a judgment.”
Asking Rangel to step down from his chairmanship would be “disproportionate to the bipartisan recommendation” from the panel, Van Hollen said.
Reps. Bright, Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), who is running for the Senate, all have called on Rangel to relinquish his chairmanship following Thursday’s ethics committee admonishment. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), meanwhile, has donated money he received from Rangel to charity.
"Yes, I do believe Mr. Rangel should step aside as chairman,” Quigley said. “His position is simply too important.”
Taylor hails from a conservative district, but is not considered vulnerable. Quigley, who represents Rahm Emanuel's old district, is expected to easily win reelection.
GOP target Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.) last year, along with Taylor, voted with Republicans to remove Rangel as chairman.
Republicans did go after Rangel in 2008, but House Democrats that year were poised to enlarge their majority and the spotlight on the Ways and Means Committee chairman was not nearly as intense.
Now, Pelosi -- who fiercely protects the interests of her caucus -- must decide what to do next.
The problem is that it remains unclear when the ethics panel will release its other findings on Rangel, leaving him and political vulnerable Democrats in limbo.
In an interview on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program, Pelosi ally Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) indicated that it would be better politically for Democrats if Rangel stepped aside. And the ethics panel admonishment, Miller said, will make Rangel's job more difficult.
However, Miller said Rangel deserves to have the ethics panel complete its work.
Even though Republicans have been calling for Rangel's head, his ouster would deprive them of a key talking point.
Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), who is next in line in seniority on the Ways and Means Committee, has previously indicated he would launch a bid for the post if it were open. Stark has made a series of controversial remarks throughout his career and was himself the subject of an ethics probe during the 111th Congress. The panel cleared Stark in January.
Moreover, there are already five California House chairmen. Another one would likely cause unrest in the caucus.
Ousting Rangel against his will would likely trigger opposition from the CBC.
But in 2006, CBC protests against Pelosi's decision to remove then Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) from the Ways and Means panel didn't deter her. Jefferson was bounced from the panel, and later was convicted of corruption. Pelosi's move cost her some political capital back back then. But it ended up being a shrewd maneuver, allowing Democrats to have the upper hand on ethics. At the time, the House GOP was dealing with myriad ethics scandals.
Some Democrats are defending Rangel, including CBC members Reps. Danny Davis (Ill.) and Alcee Hastings (Fla.).
Asked whether Rangel should step down, Hastings responded, "No. He is my friend."
"The committee on a bipartisan basis said he didn't knowingly violate any rule," Hastings said. "They need to render the other judgments very soon."
The ethics committee did not use the term “willfully” in its ruling on the Caribbean trip. Instead, the panel’s 200-page report said Rangel’s staff was well aware of the improper corporate sponsorship of the trips to Antigua and St. Maarten but members of the investigative subcommittee could find no evidence that Rangel himself also was aware of it. Even so, the panel determined that Rangel was responsible for his staff’s extensive knowledge of the improper corporate contributions.
Rangel’s name was included as a “cc” on several letters to corporations asking donations for the trips, and in one instance, one of his staffers wrote him a memo about HSBC’s decision to bow out of its sponsorship for the 2008 junket because of the scrutiny in the press. In the memo, the aide suggested different ways the office or Rangel could convince HSBC to remain a sponsor, such as contacting the New York’s comptroller general or even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Rangel has said he was unaware of the corporate sponsors, didn’t know his name was on the solicitation letters and never read the memo his staff wrote to him.
He told the House investigative subcommittee that he didn’t know “what HSBC was.”
Skeptical watchdogs scoffed at that explanation.
The ethics committee is still scrutinizing charges that he improperly used his office to raise money for an academic center at City College of New York that is named after him, and allegations that he failed to pay taxes on rental income from a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic, among others.