A House committee took the "right course" by moving ahead with plans for a public trial of New York Rep. Charles Rangel on ethics charges, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told "Good Morning America" this morning.
"There is a bipartisan committee in the House that's looking into some very serious charges. We believe that's the right course, and we're not going to prejudge the outcome of that trial," said Gibbs.
The trial sets the stage for an awkward spectacle for Democrats ahead of the midterm elections.
Rangel, 80, who was formerly chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, stands accused of 13 counts of violating House rules. He has denied any wrongdoing.
"Even though they are serious charges, I'm prepared to prove that the only thing I've ever had in my 50 years of public service is service," Rangel told reporters Thursday night. "That's what I've done and if I've been overzealous providing that service, I can't make an excuse for the serious violations."
An adjudicatory committee of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats could hear Rangel's case beginning in September. If the charges are upheld, Rangel could face a humiliating report on his actions, a public reprimand or censure by the House, or expulsion, which is considered unlikely.
Still, the spotlight on Rangel, a 40-year House veteran, could pose a political liability for Democrats and the administration, which have made ethics reform a cornerstone of their leadership in Washington.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously pledged to "drain the swamp" and "make this the most honest, ethical and open congress in history," when Democrats took control in 2006.
"I feel confident that this party and this president have a record of ethics, ethics reform and taking on the special interests that we're happy to put in front of the American people in November," said Gibbs.
Republicans appear poised to make inroads in the House, needing to win back only 39 seats to take a majority, and they have taken aim at the Rangel affair.
"This isn't about Charlie Rangel. This is about Speaker Pelosi's most glaring promise that she's broken," House Minority Leader John Boehner said Thursday.
Rumors of a possible plea deal between Rangel and the committee surfaced late Thursday, but no settlement has been announced. Republicans signaled publicly during a preliminary hearing that the time for negotiating has passed.
"Mr. Rangel was given multiple opportunities to settle this matter. Instead, he chose to move forward to the public trial phase," said Rep. Jo Bonner of Alabama, the senior Republican on the ethics panel.
Republican Rep. Mike McCaul of Texas also suggested Rangel was headed for certain public trial. "Let me be clear that Mr. Rangel was given the opportunity to negotiate a settlement during the investigation phase," said McCaul yesterday. "But this is the trial phase."
Rangel, whose 15th District includes Harlem, resigned his powerful committee chairmanship in March after the Ethics Committee found the congressman violated House rules on two corporate-funded trips to the Caribbean.
The committee's latest ethics report on Rangel details a "pattern of indifference or disregard for the laws, rules and regulations of the United States and the House of Representatives."