Rep. Rangel Ready To Take On The Mantle Of Power

New York's Charles Rangel will be the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee when the Democrats take control of Congress in January. Rangel talks about his ascent to the chairmanship with Steve Inskeep.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Congressman Charles Rangel told a joke to voters last fall. He said that if he became a powerful committee chairman in a Democratic Congress, quote, I don't want to be treated any differently than any other world leader.

CHARLES RANGEL: You know, modesty is not really my best trait.

INSKEEP: Democrats won, and the New York congressman will soon lead the House Ways and Means Committee. The committee oversees Social Security, tax cuts and tax increases, which makes it one of the most powerful jobs in Washington.

We met Rangel in his office yesterday. He had just left a meeting where Democrats elected their leaders. And then he was on the phone, giving instructions. One perk of being in the majority is that you move into the best offices in the Capitol.

RANGEL: Janice? I just want to make it clear that I'm very serious about the adjacent room. And the H208...

INSKEEP: Rangel is, among other things, evicting Vice President Cheney from an office that he'd previously used. Few African Americans have ever held such power, not even Rangel's famous predecessor, as the congressman from Harlem.

RANGEL: The morning after the election, I said something like that. That Adam Powell must be looking down, wondering, when is that guy ever going to achieve the greatness that I did, you know? And I said, Adam, I got the chairmanship.

INSKEEP: Rangel was referring to Adam Clayton Powell, the black congressman who was a committee chairman in the 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF READING BY ADAM CLAYTON POWELL)

ADAM CLAYTON POWELL: As I walk the streets of the Harlems of the world, people are depressed. They are frustrated. And I say to them always, keep the faith, baby.

INSKEEP: At the end, Powell didn't keep the faith. He went away for extended periods in the Caribbean, which is how Charles Rangel was able to defeat him in 1970.

RANGEL: And I'm going to die believing that we have an obligation, whether people are in Mississippi or whether they are in Las Vegas, to help people. I think that if you're old and crippled and poor, we should say, not in our country.

INSKEEP: Republicans have been warning all this year that if Democrats won power, liberal chairmen like Charles Rangel would raise taxes. Vice President Dick Cheney attacked him by name.

DICK CHENEY: The Democrats, were they to take charge - if Charlie Rangel were chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Charlie said there's not a single one of the Bush tax cuts he thinks should be extended. And he could achieve that objective simply by not acting.

INSKEEP: Cheney said Rangel did not understand the economy. Rangel responded by calling the vice president an SOB. Rangel says all taxes must be on the table as his committee considers deficits, Social Security and more. He will be under pressure, though, to help the poor constituents he speaks for without hurting the economy.

RANGEL: I have to admit that I have more new friends in the corporate world than I had before in the minority. And I have to ask them, as we talk about trade, do they realize that they are competing against people from countries that pay for the education of the workers; they get their own health insurance paid, and that in our country they have to bear that burden? Isn't that unfair that the automobile manufacturers say they pay more in health insurance than they do in steel? I want the companies to be on my side and to understand that an investment in what I was talking about before is an investment in the workforce, an investment in the country that supports them.

INSKEEP: Even if it means higher taxes?

RANGEL: Well, let's say this. There are so many items in the tax code now, that shouldn't be in that tax code. They were not put in there for economic reasons; they were put in there for political reasons. And if we find that this code got large, and then big, and then got bloated to such an extent that the Internal Revenue Service can look at it and say there's $350 billion in there if you just tried to look at it and streamline it a little better.

INSKEEP: One of the things you seem to be referring to is tax reform, which the White House has also talked about wanting to do. Is it fair to say that when you talk about tax reform, in this environment, what you mean is that some people's taxes will go down, other people's taxes will definitely go up?

RANGEL: Oh my God, what an honest question, mostly. Yes, of course. You cannot deal with any complex legislation, let alone trade, Social Security, tax reform, without having winners and losers. During the campaign, the president and the vice president made a big deal that just by being honest and saying everything's on the table, they would say - there Rangel goes again, it means the tax increase is on the table. I accept the political rhetoric. I was being responsible. They were being totally political.

But the campaign is over, and I have every reason to believe that they dare not talk that way again. That we can show that Congress and the country, that Republicans and Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee can and are anxious to work together in a bipartisan way. And only until we establish that working relationship and that trust can we even start thinking about tax reform, Social Security or Medicare.

INSKEEP: Can you think of one of President Bush's tax cuts of the last several years that will definitely stay as long as it's up to you, which it very well could be?

RANGEL: What could stay?

INSKEEP: Yeah. You've been asked about what might go away. You've said maybe some will, maybe some won't. Is there a tax cut that is so good that you will not touch it?

RANGEL: I thought you were going to be one of those responsible reporters, but you just couldn't resist the loaded question. But we'll go back to when you were responsible and say this - if I, as chairman of the committee, working with the senior Republicans, said we were going to handle the question of tax reform, I couldn't say, I want reform, but I don't want you to touch certain things. Or, I want reform, but one damn thing has to go and you can depend on that. I suspect that my Republican friend would say, I feel the same as Rangel do, this is my list. And then the guy down the line says, I go along with both of you. You're senior, but these are things I have to - and then where the heck are we? You gotta have 52 cards in the deck. You just can't pull out the ones that you like and say you want to reform.

INSKEEP: Charles Rangel is the incoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The Democrat knows it is still a divided government. If Congress accomplishes anything in the next two years, it may require very different politicians to work together. To understand the challenge, consider this plausible scenario when House and Senate lawmakers meet to work out legislation. On one side would be liberal Congressman Rangel, who recently got in trouble for what was seen as a disparaging remark about Mississippi. On the other side might be conservative Senator Trent Lott, who is from Mississippi, and who is back in the leadership despite praising a former segregationist.

RANGEL: I go into a conference with Trent Lott and say, I'm sorry if you're sorry. Let's get on with it.

INSKEEP: Congressman Charles Rangel says he'll be happy to welcome Republicans into the new, larger offices that he'll soon occupy.

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