* Rangel gives up committee chairmanship under pressure
* Democrat cites election-year worries
* Stark next in line to head tax-writing panel
By Thomas Ferraro and David Morgan
WASHINGTON, March 3 Representative Charles
Rangel stepped down on Wednesday as the chief tax writer for
the U.S. Congress, pending completion of an ethics
investigation of the New York Democrat's financial dealings.
Rangel asked for a leave of absence as chair of the House
of Representatives Ways and Means Committee amid growing calls
by Republicans and some Democrats to resign from the position.
The House ethics committee publicly admonished Rangel last
week for taking corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean in
2007 and 2008 in violation of House gift rules.
Rangel has pointed out that the panel's report said he did
not know the trips were underwritten by corporations, though
two of his staffers did.
Republicans charge that Rangel is unfit to head the
committee and there has been concern among Democrats that the
ethics investigation could hurt them in the November election.
"He said he didn't want to be a distraction for us," said
Democratic Representative Richard Neal of Massachusetts.
"He (Rangel) was a thorn in their side," said Bruce Berg, a
political science professor at Fordham University in New York.
Democrat Pete Stark, one of the House's most liberal and
fiery members -- he once called a Republican colleague "a
little wimp" and another "a whore for the insurance industries"
-- is the line of seniority to take over the chairmanship of
the powerful committee that originates U.S. tax legislation.
The full House will formally elect Rangel's replacement
based on a recommendation from the Democratic majority. Until
then, Stark is acting chair.
The House ethics panel -- three Democrats and three
Republicans -- is still probing other matters involving Rangel,
including his use of a rent-controlled apartment and his
fund-raising for the Charles Rangel Center for Public Service
in New York.
He was urged to step aside before the House voted on a
Republican resolution to strip him of his chairmanship, which
could have happened as early as Wednesday.
Stark, as chairman of a House health subcommittee, has held
hearings critical of for-profit healthcare providers.
"We would expect him to continue that now that he has an
even bigger platform from which to attack the industry," said
Rick Weissenstein of Concept Capital, which tracks Congress for
Rangel has been a key player in efforts to help President
Barack Obama pass legislation to revamp the healthcare system.
He took the lead in writing the House bill's tax
provisions, including one that would have imposed a 5.4 percent
surtax on millionaires to help pay to provide coverage to
millions of uninsured Americans.
During the 20-year period that ended in December, Rangel's
campaign committee raised nearly $20 million, about a fourth of
it from people in the financial industry, according to figures
compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
At a hastily called news conference at which he took no
questions, Rangel said: "I have this morning sent a letter to
Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi asking her to grant me a leave of
absence (as committee chairman) until such time as the ethics
committee completes its work."
Pelosi promptly honored Rangel's request, commending him
for "his decades of leadership on jobs, healthcare, and the
most significant economic issues of the day."
House Republican leader John Boehner, who had pushed for
Rangel to step down, mocked his statement that he was taking a
leave of absence.
"There is nothing in the rules of the House that refers to
temporarily stepping aside. Either you're the chairman or
you're not," Boehner said.
"He does not deserve to be a member of the Democrat
leadership nor as chairman of his committee."
Rangel, long one of the most powerful members of Congress,
has become an embarrassment for the Democratic leadership.
Pelosi vowed to "drain the swamp" of corruption shortly
before Democrats won control of the House in 2006 after a
decade of Republican rule.
Rangel is in his 20th two-year term in House and was
re-elected by his New York district in 2008 with 89 percent of
(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan, Donna Smith and Kim
Dixon; editing by Chris Wilson and Vicki Allen)