Onlookers Mull Succession Plans

Posted September 15, 2008 at 6:44pm

Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) is trying to keep a grip on his gavel in the face of fresh revelations about his financial dealings, ongoing ethics inquiries into them and mounting calls for his ouster. But watchers of the powerful tax-writing panel are already looking at its roster of senior Democrats to try to figure out who would succeed Rangel if he decides to step aside.

Rangel met with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other Democratic leaders Monday evening but declined to discuss the session afterward. Rangel said he hoped “to answer the question you’re concerned with” at some other time.

But Pelosi answered “no” when asked later by reporters whether Rangel had offered to step down from his chairmanship.

Committee Democrats, aides and lobbyists declined to speculate publicly about who would lead the panel in Rangel’s absence, insisting the veteran Harlem lawmaker will weather the political storm continuing to rage over his faulty financial reports. “I fully support Mr. Rangel as Chair of Ways and Means. He should not step down,” Rep. Sander Levin (Mich.), the third-ranking Democrat on the committee, said in a statement.

Quietly, however, the controversy has breathed new life into a Beltway guessing game that began when Democrats reclaimed the majority. If Rangel can hang on, he will be bound by term limits to surrender his gavel in 2012. What happens then — or, perhaps, much sooner — is anything but clear.

If Rangel opts to step aside temporarily while the House ethics committee pursues three separate investigations into his personal finances and fundraising activity, House rules dictate that Rep. Pete Stark (Calif.), the second-ranking Democrat on the panel, will step in to replace him.

That was the protocol the party, and the committee, followed in June 1994, when then-Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), dogged by a corruption probe, handed control over to then-Rep. Sam Gibbons (D-Fla.).

It is less certain what would happen if Rangel was forced to permanently forfeit his gavel. Though Democrats traditionally respect seniority in making committee promotions, Stark, like Gibbons, has a history of controversial remarks, prompting a widespread belief among Democrats that he would be too great a liability in the job. That view was brought into relief last year when Stark apologized after saying American troops were in Iraq to “get their heads blown off for the president’s amusement.”

Pelosi demonstrated her willingness to bypass the committee pecking order to find a chairman when, at the start of this Congress, she tapped Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) to helm the Intelligence Committee over his more-senior colleagues, Reps. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.). She has strong leverage in the process, in which chairmen are officially chosen by the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and then ratified by the Democratic Caucus.

Next in line after Stark is Levin, a lawmaker many Democrats see as well-positioned to assume Rangel’s place. As ranking member of the panel’s subcommittee on Social Security, Levin in 2005 helped lead Democratic efforts to oppose President Bush’s plan to add private accounts to the popular retirement program.

Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.) follows Levin in seniority, and several Democrats said he would have a strong case to make. The only psychiatrist in Congress, McDermott, like Stark, has established himself as a health policy expert — a credential that would recommend him in the next Congress, when lawmakers could tackle a major health care overhaul.

But McDermott in April just wrapped up a decade-long ethics dispute of his own by paying House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) more than $1 million for leaking the contents of an illegally taped phone call.

Rep. John Lewis (Ga.) ranks a spot behind McDermott in seniority, though it is not clear whether he would seek to leapfrog into the chairman’s seat given that he is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has vigorously defended the seniority system.

Rounding out the lineup of top Democrats on the panel is Rep. Richard Neal (Mass.), whom several committee watchers described as a rising star.

“He’s young, bright, effective, a team player, well-liked by leadership and well-respected by his colleagues on the committee,” one Democratic lobbyist said of Neal, who is at least a decade younger than the more senior Democrats on the panel.

While most Democrats said the list of possible Rangel replacements ends with Neal, one lobbyist suggested it should stretch further, to include Reps. John Tanner (Tenn.) and Xavier Becerra (Calif.). An open-ended Rangel absence “would be the equivalent of an open seat solidly in one party’s hands. You have a 15-person primary, and the winner gets the seat for life,” this lobbyist said.

With media reports almost daily detailing new omissions in Rangel’s financial reports, House Republicans have maintained a steady barrage of attacks.

They are calling for Rangel to step aside and blasting vulnerable Democrats who have benefited from his political contributions. This week, they are expected to offer a privileged resolution on the matter.

Rangel’s office referred questions about his future on the panel to his lawyers, who declined to comment.

A Pelosi spokesman likewise declined to comment. As recently as Friday, she came to Rangel’s defense, blasting the Republican attacks on him in a letter to Boehner.

Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.