Under Fire, Rangel Appears to Be Losing Grip of Committee


rangelCaught in a swirl of ethics inquiries, Representative Charles B. Rangel, the dean of the New York Congressional delegation, appeared to be losing his grip on his powerful post as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday night as Republicans planned to force a vote insisting that he step aside.The House ethics committee last week admonished Mr. Rangel, an ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for violating Congressional gift rules by accepting corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008.

The ethics panel is still investigating more serious allegations regarding Mr. Rangel’s fund-raising, his failure to pay federal taxes on rental income from a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic and his use of four rent-stabilized apartments provided by a Manhattan real estate developer.

And with Republicans preparing to force a vote on Wednesday on whether Mr. Rangel should give up his chairmanship, support among his fellow Democrats appeared to be crumbling. Mr. Rangel huddled in a meeting with senior party leaders, including Ms. Pelosi, and officials said Democrats were urging him to step down at least temporarily.

As he left his crisis meeting with party leaders at about 8 p.m., Mr. Rangel insisted that he was not stepping down. Asked if he was going to remain as chairman, he said, “You bet your life.”

Pushed on whether he would step aside temporarily, he replied, flatly, “No.”

He said he was headed back to his office to work on jobs legislation, and when a reporter asked if he would still be the committee chairman on Wednesday, Mr. Rangel said, “Yes, and I don’t lie to the press.”

While the floor vote would not be binding on Mr. Rangel, a growing number of rank-and-file Democrats said they could not envision standing behind the embattled chairman given the likelihood that he would soon face further reprimands by the ethics committee, and Republican challengers would criticize such a vote in the fall elections.

A senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee said that he could not vote in support of Mr. Rangel and had informed House leaders of his position. “I think it’s done,” this lawmaker said, speaking on condition of anonymity, who said he was worried about opening the floodgates to further criticism of Mr. Rangel.

Representative Artur Davis, Democrat of Alabama, on Tuesday became the first member of the Congressional Black Caucus to call for Mr. Rangel to step down. Mr. Rangel is one of the most senior members of the caucus; Mr. Davis is running for governor of Alabama this year.

Another members of the caucus, Representative Gregory W. Meeks, Democrat of New York, said on Tuesday night that he believed Mr. Rangel retained the support of rank-and-file Democrats. “In my estimation, Mr. Rangel should stay as chairman,” he said in an interview. “He will still have the overwhelming support of the Democratic caucus.”

But other lawmakers and Congressional officials said that giving up his chairmanship temporarily was perhaps the only way for Mr. Rangel to avoid the embarrassment of Democrats joining Republicans in rebuking him.

Mr. Rangel’s ethics problems have threatened to be become a serious distraction for party leaders at a time when they face numerous challenges including an uphill battle to revive the stalled health care legislation.

Officials said the Ways and Means panel had been hobbled in recent weeks. The committee has authority over the tax laws that are central to Democrats’ various jobs proposals and it shares jurisdiction over the health care legislation.

House Republicans, seizing on the findings by the ethics committee last week, were preparing to force what would amount to a no-confidence vote, as a way of drawing attention to the situation and chiding Ms. Pelosi who upon becoming speaker in 2006 promised to run an ethical and scandal-free Congress.

Mr. Rangel, who has represented Harlem since 1971, has been dogged by allegations of impropriety.

He was one of five members of the black caucus who accepted trips to attend business seminars in Antigua and Barbuda and in St. Maarten organized by the Carib News Foundation, a charity affiliated with a Caribbean-focused newspaper in New York. The conferences had been underwritten, however, by corporations like Verizon and AT&T.

The ethics committee admonished Mr. Rangel even though it said it did not have proof he knew of the corporate sponsorships. But two members of his staff knew and the panel said Mr. Rangel should be held accountable.

Mr. Rangel and the other lawmakers who attended the seminars were told to repay the cost of the trips, about $11,800.

But the erosion of support for him among Democrats likely stems from the ongoing investigations into more serious allegations, including that Mr. Rangel – the leader of the tax-writing Ways and Means committee – had failed to pay federal income taxes on a vacation property he owns in the Dominican Republican.

The ethics inquiry about Mr. Rangel actually started in September 2008 after reports that included assertions that he was renting four rent-stabilized apartments in Harlem at a price well below market value, despite rules forbidding House members from accepting gifts worth more than $50.

If Mr. Rangel were to step aside, Democrats could face a difficult choice in choosing his successor at the committee. Democrats typically distributed such plum positions by seniority, but Representative Pete Stark, Democrat of California, is next in line and has a reputation among some lawmakers as being abrasive. He is followed by a handful of other senior members who have their drawbacks and advantages.

{NY Times/Noam Amdurski-Matzav.com Newscenter}