Vice President Dick Cheney (search) contended Monday that Rep. Charles Rangel (search), the dean of New York's congressional delegation, is "losing it" — striking back after months of verbal attacks from the Harlem lawmaker.

Rangel had criticized Cheney in recent interviews, saying the vice president, who has a history of heart trouble, might be too sick to perform his job.

"I would like to believe he's sick rather than just mean and evil," Rangel said last Friday on NY1, the New York City-based all-news channel.

Rangel added about Cheney: "... he's a sick man you know.... He's got heart disease, but the disease is not restricted to that part of his body. He grunts a lot, so you never really know what he's thinking.

"Why do you think people are spending so much time praying for President Bush's health? If he ever leaves and Cheney's in charge, there's not very much else to pull together for the rest of our nation. This is a sad state of affair."

In an interview Monday with nationally syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh (search), the 64-year-old Cheney suggested it was the 75-year-old Rangel who may not be up to the demands of his job.

"I'm frankly surprised at his comments. It almost struck me — they were so out of line, it almost struck me that there was some — Charlie was having some problem," said Cheney.

"Charlie is losing it, I guess."

Cheney added to his criticism later in the day in an interview with radio talk show host Sean Hannity (search).

"I don't know what I did to offend him, but he's gotten pretty nasty lately.... I think Charlie is a lot older than I am, and it shows," said the vice president.

Rangel, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, is one of Congress' most caustic critics of the Bush administration. He has denounced the administration's handling of the Iraq war, tax policy, and a host of other matters.

Emile Milne, Rangel's spokesman, refused to comment on Cheney's remarks.

Rangel's verbal broadsides on Cheney escalated in late August, when the same local news station asked him if President Bush was spending too much time on vacation.

"Oh no, it makes the country a lot more safe," Rangel said. "The further Bush is away from Washington, the better it is. And sometimes I don't think even Cheney is awake enough to know what's going on."

Cheney, 64, has had four heart attacks, quadruple bypass surgery, two artery-clearing angioplasties and a pacemaker placed in his chest. An annual heart checkup in July found him in good health.

On Sept. 24, Cheney had surgery to repair aneurysms behind both knees and was walking with a cane last week as a result.