WASHINGTON - Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan took over Thursday as chairman of the powerful tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee after Democrats decided they wanted a consensus builder rather than a firebrand going into the midterm elections.

Levin, a liberal, replaces Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Harlem), who stepped aside Wednesday while the House ethics committee investigates his fundraising and finances. That panel concluded last week that he violated House rules forbidding lawmakers from taking trips paid by corporate sponsors.

Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.) was next in line for the post and held it a day, until Democrats decided they didn't want one of their most confrontational members - Stark once accused Republicans of wanting to send troops to Iraq "to get their heads blown off for the amusement of the president" - in such a high-profile job when their party already is under assault from voters.

The Ways and Means Committee originates all tax laws, making it arguably the most powerful committee in Congress.

One key issue that Levin is expected to have to deal with is the billions of dollars in tax cuts set to expire at the end of the year.

Levin, 78, represents an auto industry district outside Detroit and is the Democrats' foremost expert on trade.

- AP

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