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92 Days to Decide: GOP Working to Keep Dems' Ethics Storm on Radar

Rangel

July 23: Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel speaks to reporters during a news conference in New York. Rangel, once among the most powerful members of Congress, will face a hearing on charges of violating House ethics rules.AP

Republican operatives are working to make the ethics charges against Rep. Charles Rangel stick to as many Democrats as possible, as Rangel's colleagues begin to peel away out of concern for what a high-profile trial will mean for their party in November. 

The addition of charges announced Monday against fellow Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters virtually ensures that ethics concerns will be an albatross for the majority party in the weeks ahead -- at a time when Democrats are already fending off complaints about the economy and deficit spending. 

"Pelosi's swamp just got dirtier," the National Republican Congressional Committee declared in a statement over the weekend. 

Republicans are working out a relatively clear-cut strategy for painting other Democrats with that brush. The GOP is highlighting congressional colleagues who have held onto campaign contributions from both Rangel and Waters. A GOP official said the party also will highlight Democrats who resisted efforts to strip Rangel of his chairmanship on the House Ways and Means Committee -- a post he ultimately lost in March. Finally, the cases will allow Republicans to make the case that the alleged violations undermine House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's 2006 pledge to "drain the swamp." 

Unless Democrats can work out a deal or Rangel steps down, they'll be saddled in September with an attention-consuming trial that will feature a defiant congressman tied closely to many of them. The Waters case could make that two trials. 

"Bringing ethics into the fight in September is not a good thing for them, especially given that many of these Democrats ran on platforms to clean up Washington in 2006," the GOP official said. "It certainly doesn't bode well for them." 

Rangel was charged last week with 13 ethics counts involving tax and disclosure violations as well as allegations of misusing his office. Waters is accused of using her position to help arrange for federal bailout funds for a bank associated with her family. Both Waters and Rangel deny the allegations against them, though Rangel admits he's made "mistakes." 

Rangel, showing no sign that he's moving closer to a settlement, said in a Twitter message Sunday that he's fighting for a "fair and open hearing." The subcommittee probing Waters announced Monday that it was charging the congresswoman, though it did not detail the allegations -- Fox News has learned that Waters, too, would rather proceed with a trial than strike a deal and accept the discipline doled out by the ethics panel. 

While Pelosi says she's not worried, some of Rangel's House colleagues are starting to get jittery. So far at least 11 House Democrats have called for the New York Democrat to resign, either outright or if the charges are true. 

"If we're spending time on ethics stuff, we're not spending time helping our nation," Rep. John Adler, D-N.J., one of those Democrats, told Fox News. "Congress should not be distracted from (an) ethics trial." 

Adler did not address campaign concerns, but Rep. Michael Arcuri, D-N.Y., suggested the Rangel case was starting to have widespread ramifications. 

"At the end of the day, only Congressman Rangel knows what, if anything, he did wrong," he said in a written statement. "But there comes a time when the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. I think we are at that point right now and that Congressman Rangel should think about stepping down because this situation is beginning to affect our ability to govern." 

Rangel's Democratic primary opponents are sugarcoating nothing as they try to pressure Rangel to clear out his desk. 

"I reiterate my belief that every day that this matter drags on puts the Democratic Party in grave danger in the November elections," primary opponent Jonathan Tasini said in a written statement. 

A number of House Democrats have already gotten rid of their Rangel contributions. Rep. Kathy Dalhkemper, D-Pa., announced last week that she was donating $14,000 in Rangel contributions to charity. Rep. Brad Ellsworth, D-Ind., who is running to succeed retiring Sen. Evan Bayh, also said he's returning the Rangel money. According to one GOP estimate, $650,000 in donations has been offloaded so far. 

Other Democratic leaders are urging colleagues to let the process play out and avoid a rush to judgment. Pelosi is trying to play it cool. 

She said on ABC's "This Week" that she's not "nervous" about the elections. She cited the Democrats' fundraising advantage -- something Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged Sunday was a problem -- and stood by her ethics record. 

Pelosi said that under her leadership, the House did drain the so-called swamp by passing "the most sweeping ethics reform in the history of the Congress." She claimed to be "out of the loop" on the Rangel probe and suggested ethical misdeeds would not be tolerated. 

"Any personal respect and affection we may have for people makes us sad about the course of events, but we have to uphold a high ethical standard, and none of our personalities is more important than that," she said. 

Republican leaders in Congress seem to be holding back on the ethics issue, letting the campaign arms do the heavy lifting. Republicans have had ethical problems of their own. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., is being investigated over whether he broke the law in trying to keep an affair secret. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., was tied to the D.C. madam prostitution ring. Indiana Republican Rep. Mark Souder left the House earlier in the year after admitting to an extramarital affair with an aide. 

While ethics is now an inevitable campaign topic, House Minority Leader John Boehner said on "Fox News Sunday" that jobs, spending and taxes continue to be front and center.