For more than a year, the popular chairman – a close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi – has dodged calls from Republicans and ethics watchdog groups for his resignation.
“Rep. Rangel has had a long and distinguished career and I respect his leadership, but I believe Congress needs to do more to restore the public trust,” said Rep. Artur Davis (D) of Alabama, in a statement. A colleague on the House Ways and Means Committee, Representative Davis was the first member of the Congressional Black Caucus to back calls for Rangel's resignation.
Rangel faces ongoing ethics probes on issues ranging from misuse of rent-controlled apartments in New York and failure to disclose income from a villa in the Dominican Republic to reports that he exchanged official favors – a tax loophole for oil driller Nabors Industries Ltd. – in exchange for a $1 million gift to the Charles Rangel Center at City College of New York.
“He’s not getting that chairmanship back, because trips to the Caribbean are the least of his problems,” says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW), an ethics watchdog in Washington.
“As we get deeper into election season, support is eroding for Rangel, because members know that ethics matters with voters,” she adds.
Republicans lost a bid to remove Rangel from his chairmanship on Oct. 7, 2009, after all but one Democrat voted to derail the motion. But aides on both sides of the aisle say that a similar motion GOP leaders had planned to introduce Wednesday, would have drawn considerably more Democratic votes. At least a dozen Democrats have publicly called on Rangel to step down.
As recently as Tuesday night, Rangel said that he planned to stay on as committee chair. In a hastily called press briefing this morning, he changed course. “In view of the fact that my chairmanship is bringing so much attention to the press, and in order to avoid my colleagues having to defend me during their elections, I have this morning sent a letter to Speaker Pelosi asking her to grant me a leave of absence until such time as the ethics committee completes its work,” he said.
Republicans challenged the claim that Rangel had a voluntary leave of absence and could simply step back into the chairmanship.
“There is nothing in the rules of the House that refers to a temporary resignation. You either resign or you don’t,” said Republican leader John Boehner in a press briefing Wednesday.
House officials described Rangel's move as a resignation. “The House accepted his resignation. Mr. Rangel resigned as chairman,” said House
parliamentarian John Sullivan. The acting chair of the Ways and Means Committee is Rep. Pete Stark (D) of California, the No. 2 Democrat on the panel.
Corruption allegations against the majority party fueled the Republican victory in 1994, when Republicans took back the House for the first time in 47 years. Ethics was also a rallying cry for Democrats, who won back the House in 2006 after scandals involving mainly Republicans and then-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Democratic leader Pelosi ran on a campaign to "clean up the House."
Rangel defenders are concerned that his resignation sets a troubling precedent. "We recognize that Chairman Rangel did not want this matter to be distractions from our efforts to create jobs and revitalize our economy. However, we remain concerned about the precedent this sets for the House of Representatives that the political climate is such that a member would feel the need to step aside, even temporarily, during an ongoing proceeding," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D) of California, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, in a statement Wednesday.