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.
[IMGCAP(1)] Pelosi's proposal got a lukewarm reception, and it appeared that panel members were still trying to find a single consensus candidate to rally behind. Members' hope is to settle on a candidate and bring that name to the full Democratic Caucus for an endorsement. If the panel cannot make a decision internally, the question would be thrown, wide-open, to the full Caucus — a potential food fight that top aides are desperately hoping to avoid at a time when the party is trying to rescue its domestic agenda.
No obvious replacement leaps from the top ranks of the panel's roster. Following Levin in seniority is Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.), but he carries the taint of his own ethics problems. Two years ago, McDermott settled a decade-long ethics dispute by paying House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) more than $1 million for leaking the contents of an illegally taped phone call.
Fifth-ranking Rep. John Lewis (Ga.) could have been a natural compromise — like Rangel, Lewis is a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group that has been dismayed by Rangel's sidelining atop the committee. But exiting the Ways and Means meeting Wednesday night, Lewis was emphatic that he has taken himself out of the running for the post. Rounding out the list of likely successors is Rep. Richard Neal (Mass.), at least a decade younger than those ahead of him on the dais and a lawmaker colleagues describe as a rising star. But whether he could win the support of liberals remains an unanswered question, as does whether Democrats would sign off on leapfrogging someone so relatively junior.
The intrigue in the powerful panel capped a tumultuous week in the Rangel saga. Facing ethics probes for more than a year, the 20-term Harlem Democrat had managed to stave off Republican demands he step down. But in the aftermath of his admonishment by the ethics committee last week for taking a pair of corporate-funded trips to the Caribbean, his support among Democrats cracked — then crumbled. By Tuesday night, it was clear the end was near as he huddled with Pelosi behind closed doors on the matter. Democratic aides had insisted that Rangel would use the meeting to offer up his gavel, but afterward he defiantly declared he was still the Ways and Means chairman.
That claim lasted until Wednesday morning, when he appeared before reporters and television cameras in the Capitol to announce he was abandoning his perch. Rangel explained the move as an effort to spare his colleagues the burden of defending him in an election year.
It was a highly unusual development — not least because Rangel wasn't facing a federal investigation. Under pressure from investigations into their activities, a small number of Members have relinquished committee assignments in recent years. But unlike Rangel, most of those lawmakers have done so as a result of federal investigations.
Rep. Alan Mollohan (W.Va.) gave up the top Democratic seat on the ethics committee in 2006 following revelations of a Justice Department investigation into earmarks he procured for five West Virginia nonprofit groups run by friends and campaign contributors, some of whom participated in lucrative real estate deals with the lawmaker. The Justice Department ended that inquiry in January without action.
Mollohan kept his top spot on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, however, although he did publicly recuse himself from the Justice Department's budget.
That same year, then-Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) was similarly pressured to give up his chairmanship of the House Administration Committee amid a Justice Department probe of influence-peddling of ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The ethics committee did open its own inquiry into the matter, although Ney resigned before its completion, after pleading guilty to charges connected to the Abramoff inquiry.
Democratic lawmakers also forcibly removed then-Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) from Ways and Means in 2006 following an August 2005 raid on his home that uncovered $90,000 in cash in his freezer. Jefferson was found guilty on public corruption charges in August 2009 and is currently appealing the verdict.
Other lawmakers pressured to forgo committee assignments in the face of federal investigations included then-Reps. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) and Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), who each gave up plum seats in 2007. Renzi was later indicted and is set to stand trial on public corruption charges in Arizona this month.
Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.