They had reason to feel ill. Rangel had trampled all over their plan to make the day about teachers and cops. In a larger sense, his determination to answer charges before November is guaranteed to crowd out any message the Democrats were hoping to deliver before voters punish them in the midterm elections.
Republicans were delighted with the problem Rangel had just caused for his party. "It was a Charlie Rangel moment, but it could have been a Jim Traficant moment," Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) observed, recalling the Ohio Democrat's angry defiance as he was expelled eight years ago en route to prison.
The charges against Rangel aren't as heavy as those against Traficant, but there was something wild about the usually composed New Yorker. His jacket was open, his tie askew and his pocket handkerchief spilling from its place. His speech was, literally, a stemwinder: He stood back from the lectern, bending at the waist as he spoke without benefit of notes or apparent structure. He admitted that his lawyers begged him not to antagonize the ethics committee, and that his friends pleaded that he not give a speech on the floor.
But Rangel defied both. "I have a primary next month," he explained, and the charges won't be resolved by then. "Don't leave me swinging in the wind until November," the lawmaker begged, comparing his own ethics plight to the fiscal "emergency" that brought the House back into session. "What about me?" asked the 80-year-old Rangel, who said, "I don't want to die before the hearing."
Republicans were only too happy to lend Rangel their support. "It is certainly unfortunate that members of the Democratic leadership have allowed this to go on for two years without a resolution," Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence said as he left the chamber.
Rangel rambled through the allegations against him. Fundraising with official letterhead: "Grabbing the wrong stationery." The center named after him at the City University of New York: "A broken-down building." The office in the rent-controlled apartment: "The landlord has said he didn't treat me differently." The unpaid taxes on his Caribbean vacation place: "You'd have to be a tax expert" to get that right, said the deposed chairman of the tax-writing committee.
The diatribe was directed mostly at his own side of the aisle, where "no one is coming forward saying Rangel is not corrupt." He said he was told that his colleagues "all love you . . . but they love themselves better." He mocked those who turned against him for political expediency: "Do what you have to do."
Repeatedly, he dared his colleagues to vote on his fate. "Are you going to expel me from this body?" he demanded. "Are you going to say that while there's no evidence that I took a nickel, asked for a nickel, that there's no sworn testimony, no conflict, that I have to leave here?"
The angry lawmaker left his colleagues with two words: "Go home."