WASHINGTON – The political scuffle over Rep. William Jefferson's corruption charges appeared to be at a boiling point on Tuesday, a day after the nine-term congressmen was hit with 16 federal charges accusing him of using his political office to bribe businessmen and influence foreign officials.
Jefferson told Democratic leaders on Tuesday that he would step down from his single committee post on the House Small Business Committee, but that was not enough for many lawmakers who said they believed he should resign.
Although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was expected to push later this week for Jefferson's official ouster from his committee, an attempt to head off House Minority Leader John Boehner's resolution calling for an ethics investigation, and -- in an unusual move -- specifically asking the committee to answer whether Jefferson should resign.
The House voted 373-26 in favor of launching an investigative panel of the ethics committee to determine whether Jefferson violated the House code of conduct.
Earlier, the House approved with a 387-10 vote a Democratic measure offered by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer requiring the ethics subcommitee to form an investigate panel if any House members are indicted or charged of a crime.
In another unusual step, the chair of the House ethics committee issued a statement decrying political pressure on the committee coming from GOP camps.
Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, who chairs the House ethics committee, said the allegations were "extremely serious" and the investigation is proceeding, but the panel won't be influenced by partisan pressure.
"It is inappropriate for any other member to impose on these proceedings. ... I refuse to allow these proceedings to be politicized by House Republican leadership," Jones said in a prepared release.
"Under normal circumstances, a statement would not be issued concerning this matter, because ethics issues are non-partisan. But because Republicans have attempted to politicize this process, I was compelled to issue this statement," Jones added.
A Democratic aide told FOX News that Pelosi is appointing a pool of lawmakers from whom the ethics panel, known as the Committee on Standards for Official Conduct, may select members to form official "investigative subcommittees."
That would suggest Pelosi supports an ethics committee investigation of Jefferson, though she has been criticized by Republicans for not having formed the pool earlier.
House rules do not require Jefferson to step down from his post at this point. If he were to be convicted and sentenced to more than two years in prison, he could be stripped of his voting privileges.
Jefferson is charged with bribery, obstruction of justice, wire fraud, money laundering and racketeering. Officials alleged Monday that the nine-term representative used the power of his office to take hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes — benefiting himself and his family — from U.S. businesses and to influence foreign officials.
The indictment says Jefferson received more than $500,000 in bribes and sought millions more in separate schemes to enrich himself by using his office to broker business deals in Africa. The charges came almost two years after investigators raided Jefferson's home in Washington and found $90,000 in cash stuffed in his freezer. If convicted on all charges, Jefferson could face a maximum sentence of 235 years.
As the investigation into Jefferson's dealings have progressed, he has posed a political problem for Democratic leaders. Last year, Pelosi stripped Jefferson of his seat on the Ways and Means Committee, and had to fend off attacks from members of the Congressional Black Caucus who wanted Jefferson assigned to the Homeland Security Committee this year.
Some Democrats called for Jefferson's resignation Tuesday.
"I stated in the past that if Congressman Jefferson is indicted, that he should resign for the good of the Congress as an institution, and more importantly for the good of the American people. I stand by that call today," Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Texas said.
Added Rep. Steve Kagen, D-Wis.: "While Mr. Jefferson is entitled to the legal presumption of innocence to which all citizens are entitled, all members of Congress must be held to a higher standard. Congressman Jefferson should consider resigning for the good of the Congress and for the good of the nation."
Saying Democrats delayed their response to the ethical cloud surrounding Jefferson, Republicans seized the opportunity by issuing releases criticism Lampson, Kagen and others who approved Jefferson's appointment, albeit ultimately unsuccessful, to the Homeland Security committee.
"Where was Steve Kagen when House Democrats voted unanimously to place Bill Jefferson on the Homeland Security Committee?" Jessica Boulanger, National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman, asked in a press release. "After months of silence, finally calling for Bill Jefferson to step down 94 pages and 16 counts later is hardly the kind of leadership on ethics the American people asked for."
And Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, chairman of the House Republican Conference, said it is time for Jefferson to go.
"If any member in any party showed up for work with an indictment that would result in a 235-year prison sentence, I would assume that every member [of Congress] would think it's time to start moving on and not bring that kind of cloud to this institution," Putnam said, adding that it would be "a super-human feat to pull off a caper like what Jefferson was trying to pull off."
'Business as Usual'
The Louisiana Democrat sent a letter to the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday, revealing that he will be stepping down from the assignment until the case is resolved.
"In the light of recent developments in a legal matter involving me in the Eastern District of Virginia, I hereby request a leave from my duties as a member of the House Small Business Committee pending my successful conclusion of that matter," Jefferson wrote.
"In doing so, I, of course, express no admission of guilt or culpability in that or any other matter that may be pending in any court or before the House of Representatives," he wrote, adding that he has supported all the Democratic ethics and lobbying reform measures passed this year.
And despite the furor, Jefferson's staff issued a statement late Tuesday, saying his offices are conducting "business as usual," and staffers "in both New Orleans and Washington, D.C. continue to work for the people of the 2nd District of Louisiana despite legal charges filed against Congressman Jefferson yesterday.
"Jefferson's staffers in both cities are still available to assist the people of New Orleans and parts of Jefferson Parish in matters of a federal nature. They, like Greater New Orleans residents, are also eager to help rebuild and fully reestablish communities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina."
FOX News' Jim Mills and The Associated Press contributed to this report.