Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., says he stepped down (temporarily) as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee because he didn't want to be a distraction for his fellow Democrats ahead of the elections. On Wednesday, it wasn't entirely clear how well that tactic was working.
"I love my country, I love the Congress -- I love the Democrats more," Rangel told reporters Wednesday, after announcing his decision to the House Democratic caucus at a closed meeting. "So any member that thought my chairmanship would impede their election -- then I think if the speaker accepts my request to take a leave of absence, politically, that should take care of the political problem."
That's not quite right. The National Republican Congressional Committee kept up the pressure on Democrats all afternoon, blasting reporters an e-mail late in the day to point out that members of Congress had returned $353,000 in contributions from Rangel's PAC -- and counting. "I wanted to bring your attention to the recent articles highlighting the NRCC's efforts to apply pressure to vulnerable Democrats who've accepted sizeable contributions from former Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel," NRCC spokesman Ken Spain wrote. "These efforts -- that consist of hundreds of press releases, candidate statements, one-on-one emails, and phone calls -- have translated into sizeable losses for dozens of Democrat campaign war chests."
And plenty of Democrats sounded concerned enough about Rangel that the problem seemed unlikely to vanish rapidly.
"I think I was elected to Congress to change business as usual and to return integrity to this great institution," Rep. Paul Hodes, D-N.H., said Tuesday night. Hodes, who is running for the Senate in New Hampshire, was elected in 2006 in an anti-GOP wave prompted, in part, by corruption scandals that Democrats hammered away at in the months before the elections. He had announced earlier Tuesday that he wanted Rangel to step down. "We're in a zero-tolerance atmosphere," he said. "And I think Washington should be held to the highest ethical standards."
After the meeting Wednesday, few lawmakers were interested in talking much more about Rangel. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. -- like Rangel, a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus -- ignored questions about whether stepping down from the committee post was the right thing to do. Other CBC members had said Tuesday night that they wanted Speaker Nancy Pelosi to back Rangel until the Ethics Committee finished investigating him. "All of us are entitled to our opinions," Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., a former CBC chairman, answered stiffly when asked about Rep. Artur Davis's decision to be the first CBC member to call for Rangel to step aside. On Wednesday, he didn't seem to want to talk about the move at all.
Rangel, apparently, didn't say much more to members than members did to the press. "He basically said that he was watching the news shows on Sunday with his wife, and he saw them talking about this, and he's told the speaker before, he doesn't want to be a distraction," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., who wouldn't comment on what the chatter among the caucus was about Rangel's problems.
But the last thing Democrats need -- with everything else they have going on right now -- is for the GOP to be able to use Rangel against them all year. His situation may bear very little actual resemblance to the scandals involving Tom DeLay and Duke Cunningham four years ago. Unless Democrats can find a way to make voters realize that, though, it could wind up having a similar political effect.