California Rep. Pete Stark will temporarily seize the gavel of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, succeeding Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., who stepped aside because of an ethics probe, Fox News learned Wednesday.
House and Democratic caucus rules assert that when a chairman steps aside, the next senior lawmaker on that committee should assume the chairmanship.
Senior House sources familiar with the situation signal that Stark will take the gavel in Rangel's absence, but the House Democratic caucus could alter that decision and trump the traditional line-of-succession.
Rangel stepped aside Wednesday morning until the ethics committee finishes investigating him on a slate of probes, ranging from his failure to pay taxes to his use of rent-controlled apartments in Harlem for political purposes.
Known for a sometimes-volcanic temper, many Democrats fretted privately that Stark is too volatile to lead such an important committee.
In a famous 2007 incident on the House floor, Stark accused President Bush of sending troops to Iraq"to get their heads blown off for the president's amusement."
He also once called former Colorado Republican Rep. Scott McInnis a "fruitcake."
Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., represents a district that borders Stark's in northern California. Honda described his California colleague as "passionate."
"He doesn't back off from a verbal fight," said Honda. "He's a man of his word."
Even as Rangel resigns temporarily because of the ethics probe, the same panel just exonerated Stark in a smaller-scale investigation it conducted into a tax exemption he received for a piece of property in Maryland.
The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct cleared Stark of any wrongdoing in January.
Some insiders speculated that appointing Stark could pose a problem for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Not only is Pelosi from California, but four other Californians already chair major House committees. Rep. Howard Berman leads the Foreign Affairs Committee. Rep. Henry Waxman heads the Energy and Commerce Committee. Rep. George Miller chairs the Education and Labor Committee. And Rep. Zoe Lofgren sits atop the ethics committee.
With the installation of Stark on a temporary basis, Pelosi now has three Californians chairing the three committees with jurisdiction over health care reform: Waxman, Miller and Stark.
Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus were lobbying for Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a senior Ways and Means member and a civil rights era legend, to succeed Rangel.
It's unclear if the temporary appointment of Stark in lieu of Lewis could be the source of tension between Democratic leaders and the CBC.
But Lewis downplayed those concerns.
"We have seniority," Lewis said. "I don't think it's right for people to be jumping over one another."
Another named mentioned privately for the job was Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass. Many lawmakers say that Neal is the one of the best-qualified members to lead the panel, with a granular understanding of the tax code.