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The House issued its harshest penalty short of expulsion to Rep. Charlie Rangel on Thursday night, ending a saga that began more than two years ago when the New York Democrat himself called for an ethics investigation into allegations that he violated House rules.
The House voted 333-79 to censure Rangel, marking the first time in nearly 30 years that a Member has been publicly rebuked on the House floor.
The censure itself was brief — Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) read a single paragraph announcing the censure and ordering Rangel to pay back taxes after summoning him to the well of the House to receive the punishment.
Rangel then spoke for a minute, saying it was “painful” to accept the vote, and attributed some of it to politics. He said that in his heart, he knew he was “not going to be judged by this Congress,” but by the work he’s done over his life.
He ended with a defiant reference to the title of his autobiography, about his near-death experience during the Korean War.
“Compared to where I’ve been, I haven’t had a bad day since,” he said. Rangel’s remarks were greeted by a standing ovation from Democrats in the chamber, though not Pelosi.
The senior Democratic lawmaker campaigned in recent days to urge the House to reduce his punishment to a reprimand, which would still have required a House vote but would have avoided a public lecture. But the House defeated that measure Thursday by a 146-257 vote.
“I think history would show that a different standard has been used in this case,” Rangel said at a news conference following his censure.
While Rangel acknowledged his wrongdoing, he argued that a censure was too severe a penalty because the committee had not deemed his actions corrupt and he had not sought to personally enrich himself.
“I leave here knowing that everyone knows I’m an honest guy,” Rangel said at the news conference.
During an ethics trial in November, Rangel was found to have misused federal resources to solicit donations for a City College of New York center named in his honor, used a rent-stabilized apartment for his campaign office, failed to pay taxes on a villa in the Dominican Republic and filed inaccurate financial disclosure forms.
The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct voted Nov. 18 to recommend censure, citing Rangel’s status as the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee at the time of his transgressions, as well as the “cumulative” nature of the offenses.
Ethics Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren reiterated the ethics committee’s decision Thursday, while acknowledging Rangel’s military service and long Congressional career.
“Nothing we say or do here today will in any way diminish his service to our country ... but that service does not excuse the fact that Rep. Rangel violated laws, he violated regulations, he violated the rules of this House, he violated standards of conduct,” the California Democrat said.
But Members from each faction of the Democratic Caucus, as well as Republican Rep. Peter King (N.Y.), took to the House floor to argue against the proposed penalty, urging the chamber to reprimand Rangel instead.
“Why are we departing so significantly from tradition and precedent in the case of Charlie Rangel?” an emotional King said.
“Censure is an extremely severe penalty,” he said. “If expulsion is the equivalent of the death penalty, then censure is life in prison.”
The New York Republican, who was met with a smattering of applause from members of the Congressional Black Caucus, spoke during the 30 minutes Rangel received to debate the proposed punishment. King voted in favor of the reprimand and against censure.
Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), the ethics committee’s ranking Republican, said he had rejected numerous requests from his GOP colleagues to speak on the floor Thursday, granting time only to himself and Reps. Michael McCaul (Texas) and Doc Hastings (Wash.), who were the Republican leaders on the subcommittee panels that had decided Rangel’s case.
“This recommendation of censure was not made lightly, and it was not made without respect for the totality of his life,” Bonner said, who called the resolution “a sad day.”
Rep. Bobby Scott, who served on the investigative subcommittee that spent two years reviewing the allegations against Rangel, offered the most extensive remarks on Rangel’s behalf, arguing that House precedents made censure against Rangel “singularly harsh and unfair.”
“He knows he messed up. He knows he’ll be punished. We just ask he be punished like everybody else,” the Virginia Democrat said.
But Scott’s arguments — which recalled punishments involving former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) — failed to gain traction with House lawmakers, who rejected an amendment that would have reduced Rangel’s punishment to a reprimand.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), who serves on the ethics committee, sponsored that measure, which failed on a 146-267 vote, despite the support of four members of the Democratic leadership, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.), Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) and Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.), as well as former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.). Pelosi did not vote on the measure.
Following his censure, Rangel smiled and hugged several well-wishers who lined an aisle in the House chamber.
As he turned up the aisle toward the back of the room, Rangel passed Hoyer, who sat talking with Waxman and an aide. Rangel reached out and touched Hoyer, who stood and clasped Rangel’s arms. They parted after speaking for a few moments, and Hoyer sat down heavily in his seat.
Just as Rangel reached the back of the chamber, he encountered Pelosi, who also touched Rangel’s arm and spoke to him.
He then walked out of the chamber.
At the news conference, Rangel deflected questions on whether he will serve out his term or seek re-election in 2012. When asked how the censure will affect his status in the House, he said only: “Charlie Rangel is Charlie Rangel. I wasn’t always the chairman.”
Kathleen Hunter and Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.