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Rangel's long ascent may end in a quick fall

WASHINGTON - Just about everyone likes Charlie Rangel.

Republicans pump his hand, Democrats put their arms around his shoulders and women of all political persuasions give him pecks on the cheek.

Spend some time with the 80-year-old congressman from Harlem who's been striding the Capitol's halls for four decades, and there's little evidence he's become someone to avoid because of an ethics cloud that is more likely than not going to darken in days to come.

Colleagues in both parties still gravitate to the gravelly voiced, backslapping Rangel four months after Democrats persuaded, and Republicans hounded, him to relinquish one of the most powerful jobs in Washington, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

"Amiga," he shouts in the Capitol subway to Cuban-born, Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

"Amigo," she belts out in return.

"Hey Richie," Rangel booms as he passes Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who's seen by many as a future Ways and Means chairman.

Behind the scenes, it's a different story. A few Democrats have returned money Rangel raised for them. His influence is sapped.

His wife, Alma, warns him not to be naive about the glad-handing. "You know," she tells him, "they're putting you on."

How did it come to this? Is Charles Rangel following the tradition of Ways and Means chairmen such as Reps. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.), who waited decades to become congressional titans, then lost that perch through ethical lapses?

"Some members are old-school," said Stanley Brand, a former House counsel and a defense lawyer for many politicians in trouble. "As they rise in seniority . . . they think less about [rules] changes that occur under their nose."

Democrats nervous about losing House seats this year got Rangel to step down after the House ethics committee concluded in February in a relatively minor case that he violated the chamber's rules on gifts.

"There's been a force out there. People feel they have to say something supportive," Rangel says as he walks through the Capitol's subway.

"She says it's unseemly," Rangel says of his wife's caution.

"I say, 'Suppose it's not real. As long as they keep saying these things until I die, what difference does it make?' " But he admits, "It's still painful."

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