New York Democrat Rep. Charles Rangel stepped down from his post atop the powerful tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee today pending the completion of several ethics investigations into his conduct.
"In the view of the fact that my chairmanship is bringing so much attention to the press, and in order to avoid my colleagues having to defend me during their elections, I have this morning sent a letter to Speaker Pelosi asking her to grant me a leave of absence until such time as the ethics committee completes its work," Rangel told reporters at a press conference.
"I know all of you have a professional obligation to ask questions, but I'm afraid if I went down that road, that it would distract me from what I have to do in terms of completion of the president's health bill as well as making certain that our committee gets a good jobs bill," he said, refusing to answer questions.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., today acknowledged Rangel's request for a leave of absence and said she would honor it.
"I commend Chairman Rangel for his decades of leadership on jobs, health care, and the most significant economic issues of the day," she said in a statement.
Charles Rangel had faced mounting pressure from within his own party to step aside after the House Ethics Committee last weekpublicly admonished him for accepting corporate-funded trips to the Caribbean in violation of House rules on accepting gifts.
The Ethics Committee is still investigating three more serious allegations against Rangel, including charges that he improperly obtained four rent-controlled apartments in New York City, improperly used his office to raise money for the Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York, and that he failed to disclose rental income from an apartment in the Dominican Republic.
Republicans have long pressed Speaker Pelosi to force Rangel to relinquish his chairmanship but the Speaker has long demurred.
"I would like to say that from the very, very beginning I have offered [temporary resignation of my chairmanship] to Speaker Pelosi," said Rangel today.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, reacted to Rangel's temporary leave of absence with skepticism today.
"I'm curious about how this will be interpreted under the House rules," said Boehner. "There is nothing in the rules of the House that refers to temporarily stepping aside. Either you are the chairman, or you're not."
"The ethics committee has found that Mr. Rangel violated the rules of the House and he's been admonished. As a long-time member of the House, he does not deserve to be a member of the Democrat leadership, nor as chairman of this committee," he said.
The House Ways and Means Committee, which writes the nation's tax laws, will be central to any overhaul of the nation's health care system. It will also be critical in the debate over broad tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush that are set to expire in December.
Rangel's decision to step aside is a dramatic about-face for a man who has been defiant about holding onto his position.
Following the news of Rangel's impropriety on Feb. 26, Speaker Pelosi seemed to defend him, telling reporters that the Ethics Committee report was an indictment of the congressman's staffers, not of him.
"[The ethics panel] did not take action against him," Pelosi said. "They just said he did not unlawfully break the rules."