WASHINGTON - Buffeted by ethics inquiries, 20-term Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-Harlem) stepped down yesterday as chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, delivering a heavy new political jolt to a Democratic Party already facing angry voters.
The action also muddied the congressional picture on taxes, coming as the House moves toward difficult debate over large automatic increases that lie just over the horizon. The outcome will affect tens of millions of American taxpayers.
Rangel's relinquishing of the gavel spared colleagues from having to vote on a Republican-sponsored resolution to strip him of his post. But it also focused attention on ethical lapses by a top leader of a party that had promised to end a "culture of corruption" when it regained control of Congress in 2006 from Republicans.
That could spread far beyond Rangel. Ethical problems can be politically toxic for the party in power, particularly this election year with so much anti-Washington sentiment in the air.
Rangel, 79, has been a key player in the health care overhaul debate, and whatever legislation finally emerges from Congress will bear his and the committee's stamp. Even more importantly, for the next few months Ways and Means will play a central role in shaping tax policy.
Billions of dollars of tax cuts put in place by former President George W. Bush are due to expire at the end of this year. The tax committee's chairman will have great influence over which of these tax cuts are permitted to expire and which are extended.
Veteran Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark of California will serve as acting chairman, according to Rep. John Salazar (D-Ohio), who was presiding over the House when Republican lawmakers posed the question yesterday.
Rangel, who has represented his Harlem district since 1971 and is the first black member to be Ways and Means chairman, faces an uncertain political future.
He stepped aside in the face of increasing pressure from fellow Democrats after the House ethics committee admonished him last week for accepting trips to the Caribbean that were sponsored by several large corporations, a violation of congressional gift rules.
Rangel blamed the lapse on his staff.
"In order to avoid my colleagues' having to defend me during their elections, I have this morning sent a letter to Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi asking her to grant me a leave of absence until such time as the Ethics Committee completes its work" on remaining accusations, Rangel said.
Rangel was admonished for breaking House rules by accepting corporate-financed travel. He also faces a House ethics committee investigation of whether he:
Violated House rules by using his official position to raise money for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York.
Had his committee consider legislation that would benefit donors to the center at the same time the congressman solicited donations or pledges.
Preserved a tax shelter for an oil drilling company, Nabors Industries, which has a chief executive who donated money to the center while Rangel's committee considered the loophole legislation.
Used four rent-controlled apartment units in New York City, when the city's rent stabilization program is supposed to apply to one's primary residence. This raises the question of how all the units could be primary residences
Disclosed information on the financing of his ownership interest in a guest unit within the Punta Cana Yacht Club in the Dominican Republic.
Intentionally failed to report - when required - hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in assets. The amended disclosure reports added a credit union IRA, mutual fund accounts and stock.- AP