WASHINGTON – Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan was chosen Thursday as acting chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, a post that plays a major role in health care and billions of dollars in expiring tax cuts.
Levin replaces Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who stepped aside Wednesday as chairman while the House ethics committee investigates his fundraising and finances.
Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark, D-Calif., held the acting chairmanship for a day under House rules, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi told a meeting of all House Democrats Thursday that Levin was the choice to run the committee.
In choosing Levin, Democrats went with a consensus builder rather than a firebrand going into the November congressional elections. Levin is a congenial leader whom Democrats hope will help move them past Rangel's ethics problems while providing a steady hand as Congress deals with billions of dollars in tax cuts set to expire at the end of the year.
"They're behind us," Pelosi said of her party's ethics problems, sounding hopeful, if unrealistic. "We have a new chair."
Levin, 78, represents an auto industry district outside Detroit and is the Democrats' foremost expert on trade, an issue that has been on the back burner since President Barack Obama took office. Levin currently is chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on trade, a post he will have to give up as he takes over the full committee.
After meeting with other Democratic members of the committee, Levin gave no indication trade would become a more prominent issue. He said he hopes to move ahead on job creation, economic development and health care.
Levin will serve until Rangel's ethics case is resolved or a new Congress convenes next year. Stark will remain chairman of the Ways and Means health subcommittee.
Levin told reporters: "I think you know my close relationship with Charlie. At this point, I'm acting chairman."
The ethics committee admonished Rangel last week for breaking House rules by accepting corporate-financed travel. He has called his exile temporary, but he still faces inquiries over late payment of income taxes on a rental villa he owns in the Dominican Republic, his use of House stationery to solicit corporate donations to an educational institution that bears his name, and belated disclosure of hundreds of thousands of dollars in previously unlisted wealth.
Rangel, who has said he didn't want his ethics case to damage fellow Democrats, said of Levin, "It's the best thing for the country, the Congress and the committee under the circumstances. I love him. He's good. He's thorough. He's got a reputation, and he'll do us well."
Levin was first elected in 1982 and is in his 14th term. He is the older brother of Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.