Democratic Rep. Charles B. Rangel, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee who has been dogged by ethics questions, temporarily stepped down from the powerful post Wednesday, shaking up the panel at a crucial time for his party.
Rep. Pete Stark (D-Fremont), one of the most liberal and outspoken members of the House, is expected to take over the influential committee, which writes tax legislation and has sweeping power over any measure that affects revenue.
FOR THE RECORD:
Rep. Charles Rangel: In Thursday’s LATExtra section, an article about Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) temporarily stepping down as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee said a House ethics panel investigation found that Rangel knowingly violated House rules by going on corporate-paid trips to the Caribbean. The committee did not find that Rangel was aware of the corporate sponsorship but that his staffers were and that Rangel was responsible for their knowledge and actions. —
The ascension of Stark, a congressman since the Nixon presidency and dean of the California congressional delegation, “should energize the committee,” said Rick Weissenstein, a healthcare analyst with Washington Research Group, a policy and market research firm.
Weissenstein said Stark could be expected to put a greater focus on future healthcare issues, but Democratic lawmakers said the switch was unlikely to complicate their efforts to pass the healthcare overhaul because those bills have long left the committee.
Still, the move is a blow to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who backed Rangel even as the ethics allegations against him mounted. With the death last month of Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), Pelosi now has lost two influential allies in leadership roles.
Rangel sent a brief letter to Pelosi early Wednesday, saying he would surrender his gavel as long as the House Ethics Committee continued its investigation. The letter came ahead of a vote on a Republican-offered resolution to push the New York congressman from his chairmanship.
On Tuesday, it appeared that a significant number of Democrats were going to vote for Rangel’s ouster.
Last week the ethics panel found that Rangel knowingly violated House rules by going on two corporate-paid trips to the Caribbean, in 2007 and 2008.
The committee is also investigating Rangel’s ownership of several rent-controlled apartments in New York, his failure to pay taxes on an offshore rental property and his use of his office letterhead to solicit donations for a public-policy school that would bear his name.
Rangel, 79, has represented his Harlem district since 1971, and was the first African American to head the Ways and Means panel.
One of Rangel’s colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, Artur Davis (D-Ala.), broke with Rangel this week, calling for him to step down. The move by Davis, who is running for governor of Alabama, helped spark a wave of similar calls from Democrats as vulnerable lawmakers running for reelection sought to distance themselves from the beleaguered congressman. They also began returning campaign donations that they had received from Rangel.
But it was clear Wednesday that Rangel’s supporters believed he had been pushed out too soon. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), chairwoman of the black caucus, said the group was “concerned about the precedent this sets for the House of Representatives that the political climate is such that a member would feel the need to step aside, even temporarily, during an ongoing proceeding.”
The ascension of the combative Stark, 78, was already drawing fire from the House GOP campaign committee, which accused him of a “long history of erratic and offensive behavior.”
There also remained some uneasiness among Democrats on Wednesday night about Stark leading the panel.
Stark, an MIT graduate with an MBA from UC Berkeley, once called the Treasury secretary a liar and a Republican lawmaker a “fruitcake.”
He was described as belligerent and insulting by congressional staffers who interviewed him during a recent ethics investigation. In 2007, Stark said that troops were being sent to Iraq to “get their heads blown off for the president’s amusement.”
The House Ethics Committee cleared Stark of wrongdoing in January after investigating whether he had improperly claimed a Maryland tax break for a home he owned there.
In 2003, Republicans said Stark appeared ready to exchange blows in a partisan spat during a Ways and Means meeting in which then-Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield) called police to break up a meeting of Democrats.
Stark ridiculed suggestions that a fight was about to erupt, saying at the time: “I’m an elderly gentleman. . . . Look, I fall over trying to put on my underwear in the morning.”
Stark’s appointment would increase California’s clout in Congress, with state lawmakers chairing six House committees, more than any other state, in addition to Pelosi serving as speaker.