WASHINGTON – A jury of Rep. Charles Rangel's congressional peers is ready to publicly discuss charges of ethical misdeeds. But the political discussions outside the room will be far more significant.
Eight House lawmakers who will determine guilt or innocence of the former committee chairman will hold their first meeting Thursday. A number of Democrats considering calls for the New York Democrat to resign will get their first look at the allegations.
"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.
Rangel is tied for fourth in House seniority, having served for 40 years. He's still vigorous at 80 years old. He had substantial influence as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which handles taxes, trade, portions of health care, Medicare and Social Security.
Rangel stepped down from that post in March after the ethics committee criticized him in a separate case, saying he should have known that corporate money paid for two trips to Caribbean conferences.
The four Democrats and four Republicans acting as judges are holding their organizational meeting for an ethics trial that many Democrats hope will go away. That could only happen if Rangel negotiates a plea bargain, admitting to substantial violations, or resigns. Punishment could range from a report criticizing his conduct to a reprimand or censure by the House, or a vote to expel him — which is highly unlikely.
Rangel's attorney has been negotiating with nonpartisan lawyers for the House ethics committee. Any agreement would have to be approved by Rangel and ethics committee members.
"Depends on what the settlement is," Rangel said, when asked whether he was likely to approval a deal negotiated by his lawyer.
Rangel has repeatedly said he looked forward to a public discussion of the allegations. A four-member investigating panel, with separate members from the judging subcommittee, brought the charges after a two-year investigation.
The investigators looked at 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.
The 42-member Congressional Black Caucus has warned Democrats against a rush to judgment, and any lawmaker with a significant African-American constituency must consider whether it's worth asking Rangel to quit.
However, some Democratic House members in close races may think it's more important to distance themselves from Rangel. They don't want to have to answer negative Republican ads about Speaker Nancy Pelosi's promise to wipe Congress clean of ethical misdeeds.
Two Democrats didn't wait to hear the charges.
Rep. Betty Sutton of Ohio, a second-term lawmaker 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, called for resignation if the charges are proven.
If a trial is held, it probably would begin in September. Congress adjourns for its August recess after this week.
"The focus right now is let's get out of here," said Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass.
Associated Press writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.