The calls from fellow Democrats for New York Rep. Charles Rangel to resign could quickly turn from a trickle to a flood unless he can quickly negotiate a plea bargain to prevent a congressional trial on allegations of ethical misconduct.
With elections nearing, fellow Democrats don't relish the spectacle of that trial.
Thursday is a deadline of sorts. An ethics committee panel of four Democrats and four Republicans has scheduled a public hearing where the charges against Rangel would be aired in public for the first time. The subcommittee's task is to decide whether the charges can be proved by clear and convincing evidence. Just spelling them out would be bad enough, Democrats running for re-election feel.
For his part, Rangel remained noncommittal Wednesday on whether he's still open to a deal to avoid all that.
"Depends on what the settlement is," he said of the lawyer-to-lawyer talks.
The House ethics committee has investigated allegations of Rangel's misuse of his office for fundraising, failure to disclose income, belated payment of taxes and possible help with a tax shelter for a company whose chief executive was a major donor.
"I think everyone is looking forward to getting all the facts out in the open and people will have to react once we know what we're dealing with," said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill.
But how to react? Create distance from Rangel and his conduct, or somehow remain noncommittal? Each option contains political risk.
If a Democrat calls for Rangel's resignation, returns his campaign donations or just condemns his conduct, he risks alienating the Congressional Black Caucus, a key Democratic constituency, which has warned against a rush to judgment.
But if a fellow lawmaker remains silent, he risks being tagged an inside-Washington hypocrite who broke a promise to rid Congress of corruption.
The charges are the equivalent of an indictment, not a conviction. So condemning unproven allegations against Rangel could smack of the very rush to judgment against which the CBC warned. But for vulnerable Democrats, especially freshmen eager to prove their ethical bona fides to voters, couched statements of condemnation could be beneficial, some Democratic lawmakers and their aides said in interviews — under a cloak of anonymity.
Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., a member of the Ways and Means Committee who called for Rangel to step down from his committee chairmanship, said he would not be urging Rangel's resignation. Still, he said of his colleagues, "I'm sure some will."
Two Democrats didn't wait to hear the charges.
Rep. Betty Sutton of Ohio, a second-term lawmakers who received 65 percent of the vote two years ago, said Rangel "needs to resign" to preserve the public's trust in Congress.
Rep. Walt Minnick of Idaho, a freshman who got 51 percent of the vote last time, couched his resignation call on the charges being proven.
While the political stakes are high for Rangel and Democrats with tough races, there also could be consequences for ethics committee members if they leave the perception that Rangel, a Harlem legend, got off too easy.
Voters could decide they were protecting an influential Democrat — the former chief tax writer in the House — if some charges were dropped or if the resulting punishment did not reflect serious wrongdoing.
Rangel could face a report criticizing his conduct, a reprimand or censure by the full House or even expulsion — the latter very unlikely in this case.
If there's no plea bargain, a rare ethics trial would probably begin in September.
Several of those Democrats interviewed Wednesday cited their affection for the former Ways and Means Committee chairman and said that if it came down to it, they hoped to be able to condemn his conduct and spare Rangel himself. Others said they preferred not to think of the tough choice Rangel's situation presents them until they're forced to. The August recess, after all, begins this weekend.
All said, even late in the day, they remained hopeful that Rangel could somehow agree to a deal in which he would admit wrongdoing and accept some sort of punishment. That way, the Democrats could go into the election season without having to answer for an unseemly ethics trial. And Rangel would almost certainly win re-election in the New York district where he is revered.
"The focus right now is let's get outta here," said Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass.
Associated Press writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.
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