WASHINGTON — Republicans wanted an election-season ethics case against Democratic powerhouse Rep. Charles Rangel of New York. And now, it looks like they have one.
A House ethics panel of four Democrats and four Republicans, who will determine Rangel's guilt or innocence on 13 ethics charges, held its organizational meeting Thursday. The message going forward, from the top Republican on the panel, was: Let the trial begin.
Rangel was "given the opportunity to negotiate a settlement during the investigation phase," Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas said. "We are now in the trial phase."
McCaul's strong comment was echoed by Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Ala., who was on a separate ethics panel that conducted the two-year investigation of Rangel and brought the charges.
"Mr. Rangel was given multiple opportunities to settle this matter. Instead, he chose to move forward to the public trial phase," he said.
Republicans have already been making Rangel a campaign issue, and a fall trial would give them expanded opportunities. It can't start until September, because Congress takes off in August.
Soon after the charges were revealed, the National Republican Senatorial Committee warmed up its campaign message, issuing news releases in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Louisiana and Florida. The statements asked why Democratic Senate candidates in those states haven't yet returned money Rangel raised for them. [See where Rangel's campaign cash comes from.]
"I feel confident that this party and this president have a record on ethics reform and taking on the special interests that we're happy to put in front of the American people in November," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Friday on ABC's "Good Morning America."
For Rangel, a trial is a terrible embarrassment for a former Ways and Means Committee chairman who held sway over taxes, trade, Medicare, Social Security, portions of health care reform and other major issues.
In the frantic hours before the televised ethics proceeding, Rangel did take the advice of some Democratic colleagues and offered a new plea bargain in an effort to head off a trial.
At one point, people familiar with the talks said the committee's nonpartisan lawyers accepted the offer. But since committee members have to sign off, the McCaul and Bonner statements indicate they would accept nothing less than a total or near-total capitulation by Rangel in which he accepts guilt on virtually all the charges. Rangel's offer was not made public.
It would take at least one Republican vote to halt a trial. And ethics chairman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., has made it clear she wants the committee to be unanimous at this point to avoid partisanship.
If Rangel admits to all the violations, the trial could be stopped and the ethics committee would proceed to penalty deliberations. Possibilities range from a highly critical report of Rangel's conduct, a reprimand or censure by the House to a fine or even expulsion. The latter is highly unlikely.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed resigned to a trial.
"The process will work. It's bipartisan. The chips will have to fall where they may politically," she told reporters.
Gibbs acknowledged there were "''some very serious charges" and said the White House didn't want to make a judgment about the case before the committee decided what to do. He also said that no one at the White House — from President Barack Obama on down — had spoken to Rangel about the ethics matter.
A 40-year House veteran from Harlem who is now 80 years old, Rangel himself seemed resigned to a trial hours after the charges were read publicly.
"Even though they are serious charges, I'm prepared to prove that the only thing I've ever had in my 50 years of public service is service," Rangel told reporters Thursday night. "That's what I've done and if I've been overzealous providing that service, I can't make an excuse for the serious violations."
The allegations include failure to report rental income from vacation property in the Dominican Republic, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional income and assets on his financial disclosure statements.
Other charges focused on Rangel's use of congressional staff and stationery to raise money for a college center in New York named after him; accepting favors and benefits from the donors that may have influenced his congressional actions; use of a subsidized New York apartment as a campaign office instead of a residence, as required; and misuse of the congressional free mail privilege to solicit donations.
In New York's Harlem, where Rangel is the only congressman most residents have ever known, two people reflected different opinions of the veteran lawmaker, who has mid-September primary opponents.
David Hendrickson said Rangel should step down.
"He's seen his day. He's either not in touch with the community or insulated himself so that he doesn't have to be in touch with the community," Hendrickson said.
Michael Austin said it was unfortunate that Rangel's career had been clouded by the allegations. "I think he's been a wonderful congressman throughout the years," Austin said, adding that he would vote again for Rangel "based on his previous record."