The House ethics committee split along party lines Tuesday as Republicans demanded pre-election trials for two prominent Democrats, Charles Rangel and Maxine Waters.
The rift is important politically because proceedings in October could generate negative headlines for Democrats. Trials after the election would likely keep the Democrats' ethics record in the background in midterm campaigns largely fought over economic issues.
The split shatters anew the image of the committee as a panel where members of both parties work together to investigate allegations of ethical wrongdoing.
In past years, the committee has been stymied by internal, partisan disputes over its investigative rules and by a political agreement between the parties to avoid new cases.
A statement by ranking committee Republican Jo Bonner, signed by all five Republicans on the 10-member committee, accused Chairman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., of stalling the Rangel and Waters cases. Both lawmakers have asked for trials before the election.
Until now, the committee has been actively issuing decisions under Lofgren's chairmanship, partly due to new procedures that force the panel to address recommendations of an independent ethics office run by non-lawmakers.
Rangel, of New York, is the former chairman of the influential Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax law. Waters, of California, is a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee, which approved the recent overhaul of financial industry regulations and established new consumer protections.
Rangel is accused of financial wrongdoing and misuse of his office, while Waters is charged with improperly helping a bank — in which her husband owns stock — receive federal financial aid.
Lofgren was flying back to Washington for a House session and was not immediately available for comment.
The Republican statement said, "Members of the committee have repeatedly expressed their willingness and desire to move forward with public trials of these matters and have repeatedly made themselves available to the chairwoman for October settings."
The House may recess for the elections as early as this week. Bonner, of Alabama, said, "In past congresses, committee members have returned to Washington during a recess in an effort to conclude pressing ethics matters."
Lofgren "has repeatedly refused to set either the Rangel or Waters trial before the November election," Bonner said.
Republicans signing the Bonner statement were Reps. K. Michael Conaway of Texas, Charles Dent of Pennsylvania, Gregg Harper of Mississippi and Michael McCaul of Texas.
Rangel is accused by a House investigating committee of 13 ethical violations. Allegations include using House stationery and staff to solicit money for a New York college center named after him; soliciting donors with interests before the Ways and Means Committee, leaving the impression the money could influence official actions; and failing to disclose at least $600,000 in assets and income in a series of inaccurate reports to Congress.
Rangel is also accused of using a rent-subsidized New York apartment for a campaign office, when it was designated for residential use, and failing to report to the IRS rental income from a unit in a Dominican Republic resort.
The New York congressman has acknowledged some ethical lapses, including his failure to pay taxes on time and his belated financial disclosures.
Waters is charged with trying to obtain federal financial assistance for the minority-owned OneUnited Bank, where her husband is an investor. She denies any wrongdoing, saying she did nothing more than request that Treasury Department officials meet with an association of minority-owned banks that included OneUnited.
OneUnited eventually received $12 million in federal bailout money, but Waters insisted she had nothing to do with that decision.