Rep. Pete Stark is the California Democrat captured on YouTube in a steamy argument about body fluids, politics and lying. He challenged one colleague to a fist fight and called others an assortment of names through the years.
Not pleasant, but not as troubling to Democratic leaders as this: Stark, next in line for the gavel of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, has had his own ethics questions.
Stark's volatility and his conduct with ethics investigators made naming him even a temporary successor to embattled Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., an uncomfortable matter for Democratic leaders who had vowed to run the most ethical Congress in history.
It's what they didn't say for hours after Rangel stepped aside that conveyed plenty about their enthusiasm level, and the possibility that Stark's chairmanship might end before his first committee meeting.
Stark's promotion dribbled out just after 3 p.m., when Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, who headed up the effort to oust Rangel, rose on the House floor to ask: Who is the interim Ways and Means Committee chairman?
Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., happened to be sitting in the speaker's chair, so it fell to him to announce: Pete Stark is the interim chairman.
The promotion happens automatically unless the House votes to replace him, or he decides on his own to step aside. If he steps aside, the House would have to vote on a new chairman. That became more of a possibility Wednesday evening after Democratic members of the Ways and Means Committee emerged from a closed-door meeting to say that no decision had been made on a successor for Rangel.
One Democratic member, Shelley Berkley of Nevada, said Stark has to decide whether to give up the chairmanship of the committee's health subcommittee to become the temporary chairman of the full committee.
"Mr. Stark's going to sleep on it and make a decision in the morning," Berkley said.
Stark-as-chairman may be uncomfortable for some, but it makes sense given his expertise on health care policy and his chairmanship of the Ways and Means subcommittee on health. For decades, he has been a passionate proponent of what the Democrats touted on the campaign trail as their top domestic priority, universal health care.
Still, it was an inauspicious debut. Stark is a 19-term House veteran taking the helm of the committee where tax laws are born at a time when the nation is struggling with a double-digit jobless rate and a crippling recession.
Stark, 78, emerged from the 1960s as a bank founder known for posting a peace sign above the institution's headquarters. First elected to the House in 1972, his congressional career has been anything but peaceful.
In 1990, Stark called then-Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan "a disgrace to his race" for opposing universal health coverage. He did not apologize for the remark, according to accounts at the time, saying that Sullivan, who is black, caved to pressure from white members of President George H.W. Bush's administration.
More recently, Stark famously erupted when told to "shut up" by former Republican Rep. Scott McInnis during a 2003 protest by Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee.
"You think you are big enough to make me, you little wimp? Come on. Come over here and make me," Stark said, according to an account by the New York Times. "I dare you. You little fruitcake. You little fruitcake. I said you are a fruitcake."
Stark later apologized for using "words that were not becoming."
In 2007, Stark apologized to then-President George W. Bush, his family and American troops for saying on the House floor that U.S. troops were being sent to Iraq "to get their heads blown off for the president's amusement."
During a September town hall meeting, an angry constituent confronted Stark and advised the congressman not to "pee on my leg and tell me it's raining." Stark replied that he wouldn't dignify the constituent or waste the fluid.
More concerning to House Democrats is Stark's behavior during an ethics investigation that cleared him of wrongdoing. The Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent arm of Congress, had been probing Stark's claim of a tax exemption on his Maryland home, even though he claims residency in California. Stark had volunteered to give an interview in his Capitol Hill office, which took place on May 29 last year.
Deep in the report, investigators noted that Stark had been contradictory, and worse, during the 45-minute session.
"Throughout the interview Rep. Stark was extremely belligerent and frequently insulted the OCE staff members interviewing him," wrote Investigative Counsel Kedric Payne. "Approximately 15 minutes into the interview it also became apparent to the OCE interviewers that Rep. Stark was videotaping the exchange."
Payne wrote that investigators asked for a copy of the recording, but Stark refused.
Stark did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
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