House Democrats were struggling Monday to come up with a plan to deal with Rep. Charlie Rangels ethical troubles and do it quickly.
Publicly, Democratic leaders were trying to put a positive spin on the New York Democrats 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.
Its 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.
Were 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 werent prepared to cede any ground.
I think the public understands whats 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.
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