WASHINGTON – Most reporters had long abandoned Capitol Hill by 7 p.m. ET Wednesday night, when Rep. Charlie Rangel invoked a rare "point of personal privilege," a mechanism that permits members of Congress to speak on their own behalf to defend their integrity.
But no fools they, lawmakers from both parties know a good political rhubarb when they see one. So they packed the chamber to hear Rangel. And they watched as the session devolved into a bizarre joust between Rangel and House Minority Leader John Boehner.
Earlier in the day, the embattled chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee had a bank of seven television cameras and questions from more than 50 reporters at a cramped Capitol Hill press conference. He was there to address allegations that he failed to pay back taxes on $75,000 he earned on a rental property he owns in The Dominican Republic.
But the press conference was just the under card.
Boehner, R-Ohio, called on Rangel to vacate his chairmanship amid the ethical lapses. But as far as I can tell, the most important question of the evening centered around whether Rangel and Boehner are friends.
Despite their political differences, Rangel and Boehner contend they’re pals. Been friends for years. And who is to dispute that? Everyone on Capitol Hill knows they are two of the most likeable people around, regardless of their politics. And during his point of personal privilege, Rangel repeatedly told his colleagues that he was "friends" with the Republican leader.
"My dear friend Mr. Boehner has asked the speaker to ask me to step aside as the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee," Rangel told the House.
And a moment later: "I say my dear friend John Boehner, not as this word is tossed around in the House and Senate casually, but I say it because John Boehner has for many, many years been my friend."
What Rangel is referring to is the opaque way lawmakers deploy the term "friend" on Capitol Hill. You hear it all the time.
"I yield to my good friend from North Dakota."
"I would tell my friend across the aisle…"
"Our friends in the other body…"
Declaring someone your friend on Capitol Hill is kind of like making them your friend on Facebook. Their picture is pasted on your page. But you never talk to them or hang with them.
Somehow, I doubt that Rangel and Boehner regularly exchange "gifts" over Facebook.
This friendship fiasco started late Tuesday.
Sitting on a bench in the Capitol Rotunda, I spotted Rangel walking from the House to the Senate, cell phone glued to his ear. I had just received an e-mail on my BlackBerry tipping me that Boehner had written to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi demanding that she strip Rangel of his chairmanship.
I sprung from the bench past the Senate chamber and followed Rangel around a bend and then down a little-used hallway on the east side of the Capitol. Rangel’s turn down the obscure corridor told me one thing: he was heading to the hideaway office (secret offices that the most senior senators keep inside the Capitol) of his Senate counterpart, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus. I couldn’t interrupt because Rangel remained on the phone. But I knew I had to get a response from the chairman before he disappeared into Baucus' quarters.
I was the only reporter who got Rangel to comment that afternoon. Rangel told me while he was "shocked and disappointed," he told me he felt sorry for what Boehner was trying to do.
"Boehner must not feel proud of himself," Rangel said. "But he has to do this to appease certain people in his party." The chairman then added that he and Boehner were "friends, despite the minority leader’s motives."
Boehner made it clear that friendship does not inoculate lawmakers from political warfare.
"Just because he is my friend," Boehner said on the floor, "I don’t think he should avoid the rules of the House or the law of the land."
And this gem: "Charlie Rangel and I are friends. But it pains me do what I had to do (asking Pelosi to remove him from his chairmanship) on behalf of my colleagues."
Who’s friends with whom? This has all of the drama of fourth graders fighting over who gets to sit together at the cool kids lunch table. And to some observers, that is an exceptionally accurate description of what goes on in Congress in each day.
After Boehner’s maneuvers, Rangel has to be wondering if that old saw "With friends like these, who needs enemies?" isn’t far from true.
Last year, Rangel penned a political memoir titled "And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since." The book’s title reflects his approach after he was wounded in Korea in 1950 and nearly died on the battlefield.
"I left my right to complain about anything again in life," Rangel wrote.
At his Wednesday press conference, Rangel told reporters that despite the ethics questions, "I haven’t had a terrible day. But it wasn’t a comfortable one." And he didn’t quote The Rembrandts' lyrics from the "Friends" television show theme song: "It hasn’t been your day, your week, your month or even your year."
Washington is a rough place. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that even the best of friends can come to political loggerheads. And maybe former President Harry Truman said it best about friendship in the nation’s capital: "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."
Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s earned an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan S. Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.