WASHINGTON – House Democratic leaders who promised to "drain the swamp" of corrupt Washington are doing a delicate rhetorical dance around one of their own, 20-term Rep. Charlie Rangel, as he faces a public trial on ethical misdeeds during a high-stakes midterm election.
They can't pressure the former Ways and Means chairman to strike a deal or resign without running afoul of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus. So by Wednesday, as behind-the-scenes talks more or less continued, Democratic leaders stuck with the only thing on which they could all agree.
"Everybody would like to have it go away," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
EDITOR'S NOTE — An occasional look behind the rhetoric of public officials.
The rest of the Democrats' messages to Rangel contained coded words of warning.
The ethics process, Hoyer told reporters, "is vigorous." Translation: It'll be hard on Rangel and his family.
The handling of Rangel's case shows "the ethics process is working in a meaningful way," Hoyer added. That means he'll get no breaks for seniority, friendship or good intentions.
And the process is "much more visible. I think there's much more reporting on what's going on," Hoyer said. The message: A trial would be very, very public.
What Democratic leaders probably would say to Rangel if they could: For himself, for his family, for the Democratic majority already poised to lose seats in the November election, he should strike a deal with House investigators before they start a trial Thursday and air the tax and disclosure charges against him.
A House investigative panel last week charged the Harlem congressman with unspecified wrongdoing after an exhaustive probe into his financial disclosures and taxes.
The charges are scheduled to be publicly read Thursday at the first proceeding of a separate panel, made up of four Democrats and four Republicans who did not take part in the investigation.
That hearing would begin what amounts to a trial, which would presumably take place this fall, at the height of an election season in which the Democrats' congressional majority is on the line.
While Democrats don't want Rangel's case to go to trial at such a crucial time, their leaders are constrained by pragmatism and racial politics.
The black caucus, a powerful Democratic faction established in part by Rangel, has made clear its members could revolt if anyone rushes to judgment or lifts a finger to oust the 40-year House veteran.
"The railroading of Shirley Sherrod at USDA should be a lesson learned about hasty judgment and action based on inadequate, even false information," said Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa. "That lesson must be applied to current case of Congressman Charlie Rangel."
Sherrod, an Agriculture Department employee, was ousted by President Barack Obama's administration over racially tinged remarks she made that were taken out of context. She was contritely invited back by the president himself, and Sherrod accepted the administration's apologies. But she has not gone back to her job and the matter remains unresolved.
The rhetoric from Obama's White House and from Democratic leaders ranges from "no comment" to statements about process that play up the stark realities of being policed by one's peers.
The White House stayed toward the "no comment" end of the spectrum. Presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs, normally agile and ready for questions on news of the day, interrupted the first query he received Monday about Rangel. "I don't have anything on that," he said.
On Capitol Hill, House Democrats said they were not pressuring Rangel. But they issued unmistakable warnings that a public trial, should Rangel choose that route, would not spare him or his family.
Democrats won control of the House in 2006 in large part by promising to crack down on ethical misdeeds. They reinstituted an ethics process aimed at running unbiased investigations and more public proceedings. The party's credibility in the fall elections would be undermined if Democrats are seen as going easy on a senior lawmaker charged with wrongdoing.
"The process is working, and it's working properly, even for a powerful member of Congress," Hoyer told reporters on Monday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday that she hadn't talked with Rangel about his situation. But even if she had, she noted, she couldn't do much for him. "We can talk about it, but the fact is that the committee has made its announcement and its timetable and I think we need to see how that plays out," Pelosi told reporters.