WASHINGTON -- By defiantly demanding full-fledged ethics trials, Reps. Charles Rangel and Maxine Waters are raising the prospect of a spectacle focusing on congressional corruption this fall, just as Democrats are fighting to hold on to their majority in an election already defined by distrust of Washington.
Neither lawmaker, both Democrats, faces electoral jeopardy. Mr. Rangel, who was charged Thursday by the House ethics committee with 13 violations, including failing to pay taxes on rental income from his Dominican villa, represents a safe district in the Harlem section of New York City. Ms. Waters, who is accused of using her office to help a bank in which her husband owned stock request bailout money, has a similarly secure seat in Los Angeles.
But the tenacity of Mr. Rangel, a 20-term veteran, and Ms. Waters, in her 10th term, in fighting their allegations, puts the interests of these two veteran members of the Congressional Black Caucus at odds with those of their party leaders, particularly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who famously promised to "drain the swamp" and run "the most ethical Congress in history," The trials threaten to tarnish Democrats as they try to turn the midterm elections into a choice between keeping them in power or a return to Bush-era policies.
The trials would also stand to remind voters that Democrats, who in recent years extended their reach into the traditionally Republican turf of the rural West and South, are still anchored by an urban, liberal base and led by entrenched veteran lawmakers from New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other big cities.
And the cases could feed racial strains both inside the Democratic caucus, where black members are asking why so many investigations seem to be aimed at them, and out among voters, especially in rural and white districts where many conservative Democrats face tight races.
Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C. and the House whip, defended the two lawmakers' rights to a trial but said it was inevitable that some political opponents would try to turn the ethics questions into a race issue. "Those tea party people that showed up at the health care debate, they will not hesitate for one moment to racialize something," said Mr. Clyburn, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. "They did and they will."
Full trials would give Mr. Rangel and Ms. Waters the chance to fully answer the charges, Mr. Clyburn said. "There was a lapse this year as it relates to Charlie," Mr. Clyburn said. "Even by his own word, he said, 'I was in fact sloppy.' " He added, "Just because these accusations are made, doesn't actually mean there is anything there that the public ought to be concerned about."
Mr. Clyburn said there was a lesson to be learned from the case of Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department official who was dismissed after being wrongly accused of racism based on an incomplete video clip. "If you saw what went out initially, you got one impression; when you got time to put the whole thing in proper perspective, you got the opposite impression," he said.
But some Democratic incumbents in swing districts are already moving to distance themselves from the ethical troubles of their colleagues.
Rep. Michael Arcuri, who in 2006 became only the second Democrat in 106 years to win his district in upstate New York, has suggested that Mr. Rangel resign.
"Congressman Rangel should think about stepping down because this situation is beginning to affect our ability to govern," he said in a statement. An aide noted that months ago Mr. Arcuri had returned campaign contributions from Mr. Rangel.
Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., who was elected president of the House Democrats' 2006 freshman class -- known as the "majority makers" because they catapulted the Democrats to power -- also said that Mr. Rangel should quit.
"If the charges are factually true, and I have no reason to believe that they're not, then he should leave," Mr. Yarmuth told The Louisville Courier-Journal.
"I know his lawyers put out a document contesting the truthfulness of all charges," he said. "But 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."
President Barack Obama also seemed to be ushering Mr. Rangel out the door when he expressed a hope this weekend that Mr. Rangel, the dean of the New York delegation, be allowed "to end his career with dignity."
Democratic leaders in Congress and White House officials say they intend to emphasize that the ethics process is functioning well, compared to when Republicans and Democrats had, for years, an unspoken "truce" that protected both parties from investigation and reprimand.
"The ethics process is working," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., and the House majority leader.
Mr. Rangel and Ms. Waters could still agree to accept some form of disciplinary reproach and avoid a trial -- an outcome privately encouraged by some party leaders.
Republican leaders, for their part, have kept the debate squarely on corruption.
"Nancy Pelosi said four years ago that it was time to drain the swamp," House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said on "Fox News Sunday." "But the fact is she has not kept her promise. The swamp is alive and well."