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Democrats Wrestle With Rangel

House Democrats were struggling Monday to come up with a plan to deal with Rep. Charlie Rangel’s ethical troubles and do it quickly.

Publicly, Democratic leaders were trying to put a positive spin on the New York Democrat’s upcoming trial before his peers on charges that he may have violated House ethics rules. Privately, however, Democrats were scrambling to contain the damage and hoping Rangel cuts a deal in the next few days to avoid a public spectacle that could unfold weeks before the November elections.

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, also known as the ethics panel, announced late last week that one of its investigative subcommittees had found substantial reason to believe that Rangel broke House rules. And a special adjudicatory panel is set to organize Thursday and is expected in September to review the matter in a proceeding similar to a trial.

It’s possible that panel may not have to convene, however, if the ethics committee is able to reach an agreement with Rangel beforehand on a punishment. A source close to the negotiations said Monday that the talks are ongoing.

“We’re still open to resolving this before Thursday,” the source said. The individual declined to detail whether that agreement might include a formal apology or other sanctions, which under House rules may range from a formal letter of reprimand to expulsion.

One senior Democratic aide laid out the problem for Democrats: They clearly want Rangel to reach some kind of accommodation with the ethics committee but worry he will dig in if they push him too hard. The broader fear is that white, moderate Democrats in swing districts will start demanding he resign, prompting a racially tinged backlash from the Congressional Black Caucus.

“This potentially creates a civil war inside the party,” the aide said.

Any sense that Rangel, one of the most powerful black lawmakers in history, is being railroaded without a fair trial could hurt black turnout in the midterms, especially coming on the heels of the hasty firing last week of Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod, the aide added.

“The last thing we need is something that is going to depress turnout,” the aide said.

Indeed, the CBC issued a statement Monday warning against a rush to judgment: “Attempts by Republicans and Democrats to presume guilt before the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct completes its review of the facts, which are only known to them and Congressman Rangel, violates the core American principle of the presumption of innocence.”

Democratic leaders, meanwhile, tried to downplay the potential electoral implications. Democrats promised to usher in a more ethical Congress when they were swept to power in 2006, and the ethics problems surrounding Rangel this late in the 2010 cycle could further complicate their fortunes on Nov. 2.

Still, Democratic leaders weren’t prepared to cede any ground.

“I think the public understands what’s happening,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Monday. “The ethics committee process is working like it should.”

Likewise, Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried to downplay the situation.

“The fact is the committee has made its announcement and its timetable, and I think we just have to wait and see how that plays out because none of us, not any of us except if you are on the ethics committee, has any knowledge [of the situation],” the California Democrat said.

Both leaders said they hadn’t spoken to Rangel since the committee’s announcement last week, although Hoyer acknowledged having read news reports of discussions between the ethics panel and the veteran New York Democrat.

But the 2-year-old case, which has already cost Rangel his Ways and Means chairmanship and more than $2 million in legal fees, clearly has worn on his fellow Democrats.

“The quicker this gets resolved one way or the other the better,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, who represents Blue Dogs in leadership meetings. “It needs to be resolved forthwith.”

Still, the California Democrat insisted Rangel’s ethics woes shouldn’t have an effect who wins or loses this fall.

“The elections are about individual people running in their own districts,” he said.

“I’m glad it’s coming to an end,” Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter said. But the Democrat refused to throw her fellow New Yorker under the bus. “Rangel is asking for this investigation,” she noted. “I think you shouldn’t prejudge him.”

Republicans aren’t feeling as charitable. Indeed, the incentive for Republicans now that a public trial has been set is to ensure that it goes off as scheduled — and the longer and messier, the better.

“Now that the ethics committee has assumed it’s responsibilities, it is important that we tone down the politics and let the ethics committee do its job,” Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence said. “This is a very serious matter; I believe that it will be dealt with in a very serious way.”

And the Indiana Republican defended his party’s response to the ethics announcement: “The question here was about action on the floor, action within the institution itself. I would never want or expect the ability to restrain the political debate on either side of the aisle.”

Republicans have been using the latest Rangel ethics announcement — the panel admonished Rangel earlier this year for taking part in two trips that violated House rules on corporate funding — to once again pressure Democratic lawmakers to return Rangel donations.

The National Republican Congressional Committee kept up the heat on its list of vulnerable Democrats, and Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (Pa.) became the latest to give her Rangel cash to charities. She joined Rep. Brad Ellsworth, an Indiana Democrat running for the Senate, who announced last week that he would give away the Rangel money. Numerous other Democrats had previously given up Rangel donations, as each wave of news seems to prompt more Members to want to shed any hint of scandal.

Many Democrats clearly want the issue to go away, but the machinery of the ethics process leaves them stuck politically. As long as Rangel continues to fight the charges — and he indicated again Monday that he intended to do so in public appearances in New York — there is little they can do.

While the ethics panel has not released its own set of charges against Rangel, it has been investigating numerous allegations against him, largely at his own request.

That inquiry encompasses his use of multiple rent-stabilized apartments in New York, failure to report rental income or pay taxes on a Dominican Republic villa, failure to report items valued at more than $600,000 on his financial disclosure forms, use of a House parking space for vehicle storage and fundraising for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York, including an alleged legislative quid pro quo for a $1 million donation.

Jennifer Yachnin, Daniel Newhauser and Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.

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