Several Democrats facing competitive elections began distancing themselves Tuesday from embattled New York Rep. Charles Rangel as a potentially damaging hearing on whether he violated House ethics rules drew near.
As Rangel's lawyers tried to negotiate a settlement to avoid a public ethics trial — set to begin Thursday — Democrats attempted to shift focus away from vulnerable lawmakers under pressure from GOP challengers over the Rangel controversy.
"I think everyone would like to have it go away in the sense that this is not a pleasant process," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. Hoyer was peppered with questions about Rangel at a news conference designed to detail the party's message for the upcoming recess period in August.
An ethics subcommittee charged Rangel, a Democrat, with unspecified violations July 22 after an 18-month investigation into his fundraising, taxes and financial disclosure statements. The charges will be unveiled at the hearing — the first step in a process unfolding before the midterm elections.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House ethics committee, denied that lawmakers were working on a plea deal with Rangel to avoid a trial. She told the Associated Press that Rangel's lawyers are negotiating with the committee's non-partisan staff.
If the negotiations result in an agreement, the committee could vote to accept it at the meeting this week.
Democratic leaders, including Hoyer, said the Rangel investigation demonstrates the ethics review process works, but a growing number of Democratic candidates are nevertheless trying to keep the imbroglio from becoming a factor in their races.
Idaho Rep. Walt Minnick became the second House Democrat to call for Rangel to resign, following Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Ohio, who made that request last week. Both are in competitive races this year, according to the non-partisan Cook Political Report.
"I always prefer to let voters decide whether or not someone should keep his or her seat," Minnick said in a statement. "However ... provided the facts are as alleged, I think it's clear that he should resign."
Colorado Rep. Betsy Markey, became the latest lawmaker prepared to dump campaign contributions from Rangel. Spokesman Ben Marter said Markey's campaign will give the equivalent of Rangel's contributions, or $7,000, to charity if the representative is formally charged this week.
Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Pa., and Rep. Brad Ellsworth, the Democratic Senate nominee in Indiana, are also donating the amounts they received from Rangel.
The scramble to remove any political ties to Rangel comes as the former House Ways and Means Committee chairman faces a televised meeting on the ethics charges.
The last time the ethics panel held such a hearing was in 2002 for James Traficant, an Ohio Democrat later expelled from Congress.
Rangel's controversy is playing in congressional races across the country as Republicans remind voters that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., orchestrated the Democratic takeover of the House in 2006 in part by promising to "drain the swamp" of ethics violations.
"The fact is, the swamp has not been drained," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said.
Although some Democrats were sliding away from Rangel, the 80-year-old Washington veteran still retained allies. Former New York City mayor David Dinkins said he told Rangel to stick it out and predicted the GOP wouldn't gain much ground.
"If that's the best they can come up with," said Dinkins, a Democrat, "they may as well pack it in."