WASHINGTON — Democrats nervously anticipating Rep. Charles Rangel's ethics trial know all about the media frenzy and negative ads accompanying election-season scandals. They generated it themselves in 2006, when Republican Rep. Mark Foley was forced to resign in disgrace.
Foley's misdeeds stemmed from his dealings with House pages and efforts by Republicans, then in the majority, to ignore and cover them up. Rangel's ethics charges raise questions about his management of money and taxes and his official role – and pose difficult choices for the party that won its majority in large part by vowing to run the most ethical Congress in history.
Rangel has long acknowledged that his ethics troubles had no upside for Democrats in difficult re-election bids. The good news, he said at a news conference Friday, was that perhaps the matter would soon end.
Not if Republicans, still feeling the decisive sting of the Foley scandal, can help it.
"Rangel announcement a reminder of Washington Democrats' 'Most Glaring Broken Promise,'" read the headline on a news release quoting House Republican Leader John Boehner.
Across the Capitol, Republicans in the Senate tried to get some mileage out of Rangel's difficulties with a briefing leading off with: "Dem Senate hopefuls stand by Charlie Rangel and his tainted cash."
That wasn't quite true. Rep. Brad Ellsworth, D-Ind., a candidate for the Senate, announced Friday he will donate past campaign contributions from Rangel to Indiana charities. His campaign received $12,000 from Rangel between 2005 and 2007, but Ellsworth said he has not received contributions for his Senate race.
For his part, Rangel vowed to fight the charges, starting with a public hearing on Thursday.
"I hope you do get some sort of satisfaction that this thing is coming to a head," Rangel told reporters.
That may or may not be a good thing for Rangel and the Democrats. There was an emphatic lack of meaningful comment from House Democratic leaders Friday, an indication that the way forward for the 40-year congressional veteran, beloved in many quarters, was unclear to just about everyone.
More clear was evidence that the stress of living day-to-day as a scandalized public figure had begun to weigh on the feisty, 80-year-old former Ways and Means Committee chairman.
Shortly after the ethics committee announced what amounted to an indictment on unspecified charges Thursday, Rangel snapped at a reporter for asking the "dumb" question of whether his job was in jeopardy.
He apologized Friday and convened a news conference to give reporters who had been hounding him everywhere he went a chance to ask any questions they wanted. But there would not be many answers, Rangel said, several times describing his situation as "awkward."
"My lawyers would kill me because they say the best thing in my best interests is not to make any comment," Rangel said during a news conference in New York. "I don't know how to say no comment."
Was he relishing the fight, he was asked?
"Hell no," he replied.
On Capitol Hill Friday, several knowledgeable Democrats said any strategic planning had effectively been placed on hold until it became clear whether Rangel could avoid a public trial by striking a deal – or resigning.
Absent that, the choices for Democratic leaders were stark:
Option one: Urge him to cut the proceedings short by admitting guilt to some charges and/or resigning from the House. This would kick up a storm of unrest especially from the Congressional Black Caucus, which Rangel helped found.
Option two: Sit back and watch the New York Democrat's trial unfold, hope that voters aren't as incensed by Rangel's fundraising practices and his failure to pay taxes as they were over Foley's come-ons to former male pages. And get some defense ready for the Republican charges of hypocrisy and failure to "drain the swamp" of corruption as Democrats vowed four years ago.
At the very least, majority Democrats are getting a taste of what it's like to manage a transcendent scandal in the shadow of an election.
Four years ago, then-Speaker Dennis Hastert and other top Republicans were besieged daily by reporters demanding to know why Foley's conduct was allowed to go on for years.
Then, it was Democrats running the negative ads. And, while all the Republicans wanted Foley to quit, his resignation didn't stop the bleeding. The cover up became the story. Then came the election. Republicans lost the House.