Harlem's congressman joins House elite. Rangel is a key player in tax-reform drive; has a date book full of lobbyists' names

Charles B. Rangel strides into the room and heads turn. He is a few minutes late for the 8:30 breakfast meeting at the swank Regency Hotel, but none of the pin-striped elite of New York's financial, university, and hospital community seem to mind. They have patiently awaited his arrival and are plainly eager to see him.

These days a lot of people are eager to see Mr. Rangel, the congressman from Harlem. He is the third-ranking Democrat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which wrote the House version of the tax-reform bill last year.

As a friend and political ally of the Ways and Means chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Chicago, Rangel is certain to be a prominent member of the conference committee of House and Senate members that will meet next week to reconcile the tax-reform bills passed by the two chambers.

That people are well aware of all this is evident from Congressman Rangel's appointments calendar:

``Look at my schedule,'' he says. ``The New York League of Savings Institute, Pan Am, the Council of Foundations.'' He mentions a dozen or so more organizations whose representatives will be visting his office over the next two days. ``It's a deluge.''

Already, as one of seven deputy majority whips responsible for maintaining lines of communication between the House leadership and its Democratic rank and file, Rangel has risen higher in the congressional ranks than any black member in history.

Now the eight-term New York congressman is running second to Rep. Tony Coelho (D) of California, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for the position of majority whip when the House chooses new leaders in January. The third-ranking slot in the chamber's leadership is regarded as a traditional steppingstone to the House speakership.

Although he may well lose the whip's race, Rangel's visibility among his colleagues has been increased by his candidacy, fellow lawmakers say. The chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee may be a closer goal.

``Charlie's on a fast track. If he doesn't slip, it's not a matter of whether he gets [the chairmanship], it's when,'' says one Rostenkowski staff member.

But Rangel's steady climb through the congressional ranks has little affected the clamorous needs of his own 16th District. Though the area includes some areas of prosperous Manhattan -- parts of the Upper East and West Sides, for example, as well as the area surrounding Columbia University -- it is dominated by Harlem, which encompasses some of the most conspicuously depressed urban spaces in North America.

Signs of renewal have sprouted in some blocks, but the blight will not soon disappear. As one liberal Demo-cratic politician in the midst of the Reagan era, when the ambitious expectations of the Great Society have been rolled back for the less certain involvement of the private sector, there is only so much Rangel can do.

``It's exciting to shape national legislation,'' says Rangel, an impeccable dresser down to the regulation maroon silk handkerchief peering from his jacket breast pocket. ``Then I'll hold town meetings where there are unemployed individuals asking me for help . . . and I know that I can be of little help -- that's the down side.''

So he does what he can. His prominent role of the Ways and Means Committee, during this congressional break, brought into his district office executives and lobbyists who might otherwise not step foot in Harlem. ``We consider it part of the education process,'' Rangel said slyly. His clout in local politics, as well as his national prominence, has brought to fruition a plan to build a major international trade and convention center in the heart of Harlem.

Though a member of the Democratic Party's most liberal wing, Rangel is known as the least doctrinaire member of the Black Congressional Caucus. A wall in his Harlem office bristles with the usual complement of certificates and photographs, but it also sports two letters from former President Gerald Ford as well as a note from former New York Gov. and US Vice-President Nelson A. Rockefeller.

He regularly receives both Republican and Democratic Party nominations in his reelection bids, and demolishes whatever token opposition may exist. In the 1984 election he snared 97 percent of the vote.

During the Reagan years, Rangel has managed to be vocal critic and back-room pragmatist at the same time, developing a reputation as one willing to listen to any proposal as long as it has something in it for his district. ``He is a wheeler-dealer par excellence,'' comments one Democratic colleague.

Rangel's skills as a conciliator and dealmaker will likely meet their greatest test in the tax-reform conference. He has spent much of his time during the two-week congressional break compiling a loose-leaf notebook crammed with details of the special tax deductions and shelters eliminated by the Senate and House bills. The congressman wants to see some of them restored.

At the Monday-morning breakfast meeting, leaders of New York's hospital, financial, and university communities urged him to fight a provision in the House tax-reform bill limiting tax-exempt-bond sales. They say such bond issues are the key to financing renovation projects at many older hospitals. Without the upgrading, they explained, the hospitals are likely to lose accreditation and be shut down. These institutions -- a number of them in Rangel's district -- serve many poor patients. Rangel agrees to fight the language in the House bill.

But his efforts will not stop there. His loose-leaf notebook contains details on strategy to protect energy credits, mass transit subsidies, financing deductions for low-income housing, and other tax deductions threatened by tax reform.

The congressman says he also will fight to save the Targeted Jobs Tax Credit, which gives employers tax breaks in exchange for hiring disadvantaged and minority workers.

``We really ought to have a federal jobs program to maintain these people,'' he says. ``But we don't, so the thing we have to fall back on is the tax code to do what the government should be doing but isn't. . . . That shouldn't be forgotten.''

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