(Photo: AP)

Under the weight of several ethics probes and eroding support from fellow Democrats, longtime Rep. Charles Rangel on Wednesday temporarily relinquished his post as chairman of the influential Ways and Means committee.

Questions of whether the 20-term Harlem congressman would resign his House seat or suspend re-election efforts also were raised amid investigations into Rangel’s corporation-financed trips to the Caribbean, rent-controlled Harlem apartments, fundraising for a college and late disclosure of hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets.

“Frankly, I’m amazed that he’s lasted as long as he has,” said Democratic consultant Joseph Mercurio, calling 79-year-old Rangel “a very prominent old lion in the House.”

Some House Democrats applauded Rangel’s decision to step down until ethics committee investigations are complete. Rangel last week was found to have violated a House gift ban in accepting 2007 and 2008 trips to the Caribbean.

“Like all good fighters, Charlie knows when to pull a punch,” said Rep. Mike McMahon (D-Staten Island/Brooklyn).

Rangel, a member of Harlem’s “Gang of Four” black political machine, Wednesday said he was stepping down to “avoid my colleagues having to defend me during their elections.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accepted Rangel’s leave of absence request, though her statement made his removal seem more permanent. “I commend Chairman Rangel for his decades of leadership,” she said.

Rangel, as of Wednesday night, was staying on as a member of the Ways and Means committee, and though a future House vote could restore him as chairman, such a movement is unlikely.

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Another veteran lawmaker, Rep. Pete Stark of California, was named interim committee chair.