House Republicans are renewing their drive to force embattled Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) to surrender his gavel in the wake of his ethics wrist slap last week. And with politically vulnerable Democrats starting to peel off and join the call, top party strategists are wondering how long the Harlem Democrat can maintain his perch atop the tax-writing panel.
Democratic leaders will get their first look at the erosion of Rangel's support as early as Wednesday, when Members are expected to vote on a privileged resolution by Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) calling on him to step aside as Ways and Means chairman until the ethics committee completes separate probes into his personal finances.
While leaders are not whipping the vote, senior aides are canvassing the Caucus to get a sense of how many Democrats will bolt. The count remains fluid, but Rangel allies are bracing for losses well into the double-digits.
"I wouldn't be surprised if you had 25 to 30 Democrats who switched," one aide said.
For now, Rangel is assured of the support of the one House Democrat who ultimately controls his fate: Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). In a Sunday interview with ABC's "This Week," Pelosi made clear she is backing the veteran lawmaker at least until the ethics committee finishes its inquiry. But she also acknowledged that "what Mr. Rangel has been admonished for is not good."
And her most trusted lieutenant in the chamber, Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), said Friday that leaders need to weigh whether Rangel can continue to lead his panel effectively.
But Democratic leaders appear intent on keeping Rangel in place at least until the ethics panel, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, wraps up its inquiry into his personal finances as well as his fundraising efforts for a City College of New York center that bears his name. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who was asked Monday if the Democratic Caucus would continue to support Rangel keeping his chairmanship, had a wait-and-see attitude.
"I think the ethics committee still has a lot of work to do and they're not completed on that particular issue, so I think there's still — we need to see what happens," Hoyer said.
Top Democratic strategists said an additional rebuke would likely spell doom for Rangel's chairmanship. "The problem is this was the least serious of the issues. Assuming ethics does more on the others, he's gone," one said.
Rangel's best defense at this point may be the abiding goodwill of his colleagues, many of whom view the 20-term Member as an institution in the chamber. Carter, the House Republican Conference secretary, began his campaign to force Rangel from his post in February 2009, and his first resolution received no Democratic support. On Carter's second try last October, just two Democrats, Mississippi Reps. Travis Childers and Gene Taylor, came aboard.
Senior Democratic aides pointed to several other factors breaking in Rangel's favor, including the muddled nature of the ethics rebuke, which found that while he was responsible for the mistakes of his staff in accepting a pair of corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean, there was no evidence he knowingly violated House rules. Aides also point to the uncertainty about who could replace him as chairman. For example, the No. 2 Democrat on the panel, Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), has a history of controversial statements that many believe preclude his ascension. Third is the Congressional Black Caucus — a powerful bloc of Members that holds significant sway with Pelosi — and whether it will rally behind Rangel.
Threatening that bulwark now, however, is the skittishness of freshman and sophomore Democrats, who have the thinnest history with Rangel himself and a loyalty instead to the good-government platform that helped sweep them into office in 2006 and 2008.
A handful of them called on Rangel to relinquish his post in the immediate aftermath of last week's ethics committee announcement.
And sophomore Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.) added his name to that list on Monday, with a spokesman telling Roll Call in a statement that Mitchell thinks it would be "inappropriate for Mr. Rangel to continue to serve as Chairman." Two others, freshman Reps. Jim Himes (Conn.) and Ann Kirkpatrick (Ariz.), confirmed they will return campaign contributions they have received from Rangel.
About 20 other freshman and sophomore offices polled by Roll Call on Rangel's fate declined to respond.
Republicans, meanwhile, are trying to mount pressure on the majority to turn against Rangel. "Leader Boehner has said repeatedly that Speaker Pelosi has a responsibility to force Chairman Rangel to step aside, given the staggering array of ethics issues he faces," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Carter's resolution will also call for Rangel to release his income tax returns, according to Carter spokesman John Stone.
While Carter has been the Republican point man on the Rangel resolutions, he has not been without his own ethics issues.
In November, Roll Call reported that Carter failed to report about $350,000 in profits from the sale of Exxon stock in 2006, 2007 and 2008 on his House financial disclosure reports. Carter later corrected the forms and denied that he omitted the information intentionally.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has seized on the opportunity to question Democratic ethics and to criticize those who have received campaign contributions from Rangel.
Ken Spain, a spokesman for the NRCC, said the committee would be watching closely to see how vulnerable Democrats vote on the Carter resolution.
"Democrats have a choice to make," Spain said. "Stand with the Harlem Democrat or stand up to Nancy Pelosi, call for Rangel's gavel and give back the thousands in campaign contributions they've received from him."
Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.