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Stark Runs Into Stiff Resistance

Chairmanship Could Be Brief

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Rep. Charlie Rangel, shown here at the memorial for the late Rep. John Murtha, agreed to give up his Ways and Means gavel on Wednesday after it became clear that his support was crumbling.

Rep. Pete Stark (Calif.) may have the shortest chairmanship in the young history of the House Democratic majority.

House Democratic leaders were scrambling Wednesday to fill a vacuum at the top of the Ways and Means Committee after Rep. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.) surrendered the gavel in the wake of an ethics wrist slap. And at least temporarily they were forced to hand the job to Stark, next in line on the panel behind the embattled New Yorker.

The leaders’ original plan — to keep the chairmanship in Stark’s hands — met stiff resistance Wednesday from committee members who feel the unpredictable Californian is too great a liability to helm the powerful tax-writing panel. After huddling for several hours Wednesday, panel members broke in the early evening with no decision and planned to reconvene in the morning.

Stark officially became the acting chairman on Wednesday after the House recognized Rangel’s resignation as chairman, and, according to the chamber’s rules, confirmed that the California Democrat now serves as his replacement.

But the 78-year-old Stark has a reputation among his colleagues as a loose cannon with a history of off-color remarks including calling then-Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) a “little wimp” and a “fruit cake” and accused then-Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) of being a “whore” for the insurance industry. But that’s not all. Stark also has ethics troubles of his own and, recently, health problems, which sidelined him from 22 percent of House votes last year — the fifth-worst participation record in the chamber.

On Wednesday morning, Stark told Ways and Means Committee members that he would only assume the chairmanship on an interim basis and not seek to keep it beyond this year, sources familiar with that session said. Even that arrangement, however, sparked enough unease that the panel continued to huddle throughout the day to discuss its options.

In the early afternoon, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) paid a visit to the committee’s first-floor room in the Capitol to pitch a plan that would split power between Stark and the third-ranking Democrat, Rep. Sander Levin (Mich.), according to sources briefed on the meeting. The idea, these sources said, was to mollify committee members concerned about Stark while still preserving the party’s revered seniority system.

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