WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday called ethics charges against Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel "very troubling" and said he hopes the longtime lawmaker can end his career with dignity. Several House Democrats went further, flat-out urging the New York congressman to resign.
"He's somebody who's at the end of his career," Obama said in an interview that aired Friday on "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric." "I'm sure that what he wants is to be able to end his career with dignity. And my hope is that it happens."
Obama, speaking on the issue for the first time, praised the 20-term Rangel for serving his constituents well but called the more than one-dozen tax and disclosure charges against him "very troubling."
It was hardly an endorsement for the veteran lawmaker, but fell well short of the calls for resignation Rangel received on the eve of the House's August recess. As House Democrats headed home, they wrestled with how to handle the matter in their districts ahead of the midterm elections.
Republicans, meanwhile, raced ahead with plans to make Rangel the face of corrupt Washington under the rule of Democrats who had vowed to clean up Congress.
For his part, Rangel met with perhaps his staunchest supporters, members of the New York state delegation, in the stately Capitol parlor named for the Ways and Means Committee that he headed until March.
"He indicated there was some sloppiness" in his official papers, Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., told reporters, "but, you know, there's no criminality here."
House rules and credibility – not criminality – were the reasons cited by more than a half dozen House Democrats known to have called for Rangel's resignation by late afternoon Friday.
A House panel on Thursday made public for the first time 13 charges of misusing his office and tax and disclosure violations against Rangel, 80, as it opened the trial phase of the ethics proceedings against him. If Rangel and the ethics committee do not settle the case, it goes to a public trial this fall, at the height of an election season in which every member of the House, 36 in the Senate and the Democratic majorities of both chambers are on the line.
Either conditionally or outright, Democrats calling for Rangel's resignation included Rep. Walter Minnick of Idaho, Betty Sutton of Ohio, John Yarmuth of Kentucky, Zack Space of Ohio, Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona and Mary Jo Kilroy of Ohio.
"Too many politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, have fallen victim to the idea that they are 'different' than regular folks and nothing could be further from the truth," Kirkpatrick said in a statement.
"It is our job as members of Congress to hold each other accountable to a higher standard regardless of party," she added. "If the serious charges against (Rangel) are accurate, he needs to resign."
Rangel denies the charges and says the indictment released Thursday contains factual errors.
"We've heard Charlie in the Ways and Means Committee, and he's addressed these charges. He never denied they happened. He always has an explanation. You can excuse one or two, but not 13," Yarmuth told the Louisville Courier-Journal in an interview published Friday. "I don't see how he can stay if they're true. I believe they are."
Back home in Rangel's Harlem district, he remains revered and could well win reelection if his political career survives the ethics probe. One constituent said Friday she had mixed feelings after reading news accounts of the allegations against him.
"I don't think he is 100 percent honest, but he's no worse than other politicians," said Charynda Morez, a college student, who was buying groceries at a deli.
She said that she didn't know how he should be punished, but that Rangel should resign anyway. Rangel has four apartments "when there are people who don't have a home," she said, citing allegations that Rangel lived in four combined rent-stabilized apartments instead of one, in violation of New York City law.
Democratic leaders are urging their members to cast the election as one about a choice between their party, which under President Barack Obama has overhauled health care and Wall Street, and a GOP-tea party combination that wants to roll back Democratic accomplishments.
House Republicans relished using Rangel to change the subject – especially if he does not reach a settlement with the ethics committee. A public trial equates to a free media presentation of the misdeeds of one of the most senior Democrats in the House.
The House Republicans' campaign arm released a list of Democrats who have not returned campaign contributions they received from Rangel during their careers and said those lawmakers would face questions about the matter from constituents during the August break.
"It's very difficult for Democrats to make the case that this is a 'choice' election when the national headlines are focused around an ethics scandal that has clearly impacted the party in power," said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee.
Rangel retained many supporters Friday. The New York delegation and the Congressional Black Caucus, which was co-founded by Rangel, urged their colleagues not to rush to judgment. House leaders eager to avoid alienating black voters remained mum on what Rangel should do.
Some Democrats privately said they took a small measure of comfort in one revelation. Rep. Gene Green, the Texas Democrat who led the four-member bipartisan panel of investigators, told reporters that his committee recommended a relatively mild punishment for Rangel – reprimand, a statement of wrongdoing voted by the whole House that carries no other penalty.
But statements continued to trickle out that left no doubt that at some point, Democrats would have to look out for No. 1 - themselves.
"If at the trial's conclusion Mr. Rangel is found guilty by his peers, then he should incur the full punishment allowed by the House, including removal from office," said Rep. Bobby Bright, D-Ala.
Associated Press writers Larry Margasak and Ben Evans contributed to this report.