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Sunday, January 02, 2005

Newsday > HE'S A MAN OF INFLUENCE Rep. Charles Rangel may be Democrats' best bet at countering Bush's economic agenda in the House


January 2, 2005

WASHINGTON - Returning home from the Korean War in 1952, Charles Rangel thought he had reached the pinnacle of success.

He had a pocket full of money, a chest covered with medals and a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings chronicling his battlefield heroics that saved the lives of 40 fellow soldiers.

Rangel was impressed with himself, he says.

But that feeling was fleeting as he realized that as a high-school dropout his future would lead him from one low-paying dead-end job to another.

"I had no clue where I wanted to be," Rangel said recently, recalling the pivotal decision he made more than 50 years ago about becoming a lawyer, altering the course of his life.

"I knew where I did not want to be, and that was poor, in poverty and never knowing what a new suit was."

Today Rangel, 74, of Harlem, is one of the most respected members of Congress - and one of its snazziest dressers, too. From his perch as the senior Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, which has broad authority on tax policy and social programs like Medicare and Social Security, Rangel has been a liberal counterbalance to a conservative-leaning Congress.

"Charlie Rangel is not only one of the most powerful members of Congress, he is one of the most effective advocates for the powerless I have ever known," said former President Bill Clinton in a statement for this story. "People who don't have lobbyists to argue their case in Washington have Charlie."

When Congress reconvenes here on Tuesday, Rangel will likely be thrust into the national spotlight as House Democrats look to him for guidance as they wrestle with President George W. Bush on his ambitious plans to overhaul the tax code and partially privatize Social Security.

"Charlie Rangel is the master of tax issues in the Congress," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. " ... His leadership is absolutely essential to middle-income taxpayers and all of America's seniors."

Bush is expected to seek an overall simplification of the tax structure beginning with permanently abolishing the estate tax and eliminating various exemptions like the deductibility of state and local taxes.

The president also is expected to push for a partial privatization of the New Deal-era Social Security program that would allow younger workers to put some of that money into individually managed personal investment accounts.

But there as yet have been no specific proposals.

"We have no idea where the battle is going to be," said Rangel, who has served on Ways and Means since 1975. "The president has indicated that he's going to have a panel and they will present a plan and that plan will have options. We're leaving it to the president to meet with the Democrats."

Limited influence

Although Rangel may be his party's most influential member on taxes and Social Security, his sway could be marginal at best with Republicans in firm control of the White House and both houses of Congress.

"His influence is really going to depend upon the manner in which the Republicans run the House," said Ron Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland at College Park. "Republicans may want to pursue their agenda unfettered without compromising."

And that's precisely what the GOP-dominated House is likely to do, said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington-based advocacy group that opposes all tax increases.

"The Republicans can pass anything they want without a single Democratic vote, and they do it every day," Norquist said, adding that Rangel will likely be further marginalized because he's viewed as a "partisan bomb-thrower" within the Republican ranks.

"If he's the [Democrats'] point guy on taxes he strengthens the Republican case that you should never trust a Democrat on tax issues."

But even if the GOP is inclined to press ahead with the president's program without input from Democrats, the monumental scope of fundamentally restructuring the tax system and Social Security will displease enough Republicans to require a bipartisan approach, Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said.

King said any move to eliminate deductions for mortgage, local and state taxes would likely result in plenty of GOP defectors - himself included - strengthening Rangel's hand as a power broker.

"Charlie will be key," King said. "He can hold Democrats in line and attract Republicans without making it sound like Bush-bashing."

Frequent sparring partners on the television talk shows, King - a conservative, advocate of smaller government from the suburbs - and Rangel - an uptown liberal defender of government programs - couldn't be further apart ideologically. Yet King has the utmost respect for Rangel as a statesman.

"Even though we disagree on most national and international issues, we've never had a personal disagreement," King said. "He's a very easy guy to work with."

Despite a public reputation for being hyper-partisan and quick to lob a rhetorical grenade into the Republican camp, Rangel's tactics are decidedly less confrontational when the microphones and cameras are turned off.

"He's got well-honed political instincts and actually works very well behind the scenes," Time Warner chairman Richard Parsons said in a telephone interview.

Parsons and others who have worked closely with Rangel through the years say he is an effective advocate for his cause because he uses his charming wit to seek out a compromise that all sides can live with.

"With great good nature he's also irreverent at the same time," said former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

New York City Councilman Bill Perkins (D-Harlem) agreed, saying, "He can tell you no and still make you smile."

Charismatic statesman

Perkins said Rangel, an enchanting storyteller with his raspy voice and colorful language, knows that the art of brokering a deal requires a consensus builder who has the patience to overcome the obstacles preventing a compromise.

Such skills have served Rangel well on Ways and Means, where the minority side comprises all aspects of the Democratic coalition from Northeast union-backing liberals to conservative-tilting Southerners to Midwestern moderates.

"It's a style of participatory leadership," said Rep. Stephanie Tubbs (D-Ohio) of Rangel during caucus meetings. "He mostly sits back and listens. He gives us an opportunity to have some input in the process."

Uphill battle

Rangel says he's too old to let the GOP's management style of the House frustrate him, but he admits it does make his time in Congress "not as exciting" as it once was. But the way he sees it, there's no way the president will be able to accomplish what he wants on taxes and Social Security without having to deal with some Democrats, and that means having to deal with him.

"When you start taking away all the deductions and expense, you're going to find some very angry people," he said. "That means you're going to have to do it in a way where the losers say, 'Damn, where can I turn, everyone is against me.'"

And the only way that's going to happen, Rangel said, "is if [Democrats] are part of putting together the bill."

Rangel said he knows the fight he's about to wage isn't going to be easy, but he's accustomed to working hard and surpassing expectations.

When Rangel decided to become a lawyer - they were the only people his grandfather, an elevator operator at the criminal courts building in Manhattan, showed respect for - everyone laughed at the high school dropout. His grandfather, too.

But Rangel finished his remaining two years of high school in one, earned his bachelor's degree in three years instead of four, secured more than a dozen scholarships to law school and landed an appointment as an assistant U.S. attorney when he graduated.

Rangel says he knows what it takes to achieve goals.

"But in order to win," he said, "I guess it takes a lot of -- and vinegar and a little lack of reason."

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