WASHINGTON -- The Charlie Rangel scandal is the latest in a series of embarrassing episodes that have plagued Democrats over the past year as they have struggled to get control of an agenda that is dead, dying or on life support.
The New York congressman lost the chairmanship of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee last week, 24 hours after he said "you bet your life" he would hold on to the plum post, despite a long list of troubling congressional investigations into unethical and possibly illegal activities, such as not paying his taxes.
His troubles have been the stuff of unending newspaper headlines that Democratic leaders concluded had badly damaged their party as it enters a brutal midterm election when Republicans are expected to make big gains in House seats.
One can only surmise that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership colleagues told Rangel that he either had to step down for the good of the party or face a pending Republican resolution that had enough bipartisan support to remove him from the chairmanship.
The House ethics committee has been digging into his case for a long time, recently ruling that he improperly accepted trips to the Caribbean from major corporations. But that was the least of Rangel's troubles.
Ethics committee investigators were also probing charges that he had failed to pay taxes on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic; he improperly used a rent-controlled apartment for his political committees; he used his office to seek donations for a wing at a New York college named in his honor; and he revised his financial-disclosure forms to show he had more than $500,000 in previously unreported wealth.
The venerable 79-year-old, 20-term lawmaker said he was stepping aside temporarily by taking a "leave of absence" until the ethics panel has completed its investigations. But most congressional insiders believe he will never regain the chairmanship. That led to a brief generational struggle about who would take over the helm of a pivotal committee with oversight over taxation and health care.
It wasn't going to be next-in-line Rep. Pete Stark of California, 78, an arch-leftist who has a reputation for making intemperate remarks and fighting with his colleagues. Stark, who has been fighting an undisclosed illness for over a year, bowed out of contention Thursday.
That cleared the way for Pelosi to name liberal Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the third-ranking Democrat, who has a close relationship with Rangel. "At this point, I'm acting chairman," Levin said Thursday.
But the ethical and political problems plaguing House Democrats is only part of their party's growing troubles, as spooked financial markets worried about draconian tax increases and job-killing business regulations, uncontrolled spending and a meteoric $14 trillion debt that threatens America's global credit rating.
Reports of bitter political infighting and deep dissension within Barack Obama's high command also clouds the Democrats' efforts to show that they can govern.
At the heart of Obama's troubles are stories surfacing that suggest his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is complaining to his former colleagues in the House about Obama's dubious decision-making abilities.
Washington is abuzz over Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank's story that said, "Obama's first year fell apart in large part because he didn't follow his chief of staff's advice on crucial matters. Arguably, Emanuel is the only person keeping Obama from becoming Jimmy Carter."
Some in the White House urged Obama to agree to a scaled-back, bipartisan package of healthcare reforms as a first step. But the president in a roll of the dice wants an up-or-down vote on the unpopular Senate bill, a political gamble that many vulnerable Democrats in the House aren't willing to take.
Moreover, the downward trajectory on Obama's numbers seems to be gathering speed. A recent survey by Republican pollster Bill McInturff finds that the president's job-approval score among independents (the voters who elected him) has dropped from 56 percent in mid-2009 to 44 percent today. McInturff points to Obama's stubborn refusal to change his direction on health care as a key reason behind the decline.
Through it all, Pelosi struggles to find enough Democratic votes to pass the president's last-ditch plan, with desertions mounting weekly.