The leader of the House of Representatives' job is on the line as members of the House ethics committee decide how to launch a credible investigation of former Congressman Mark Foley's salacious computer messages to teenage pages.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert said any Republicans urging his ouster were playing into the hands of Democrats.
A fallen speaker "is exactly what our opponents would like to have happen," Hastert said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune on the eve of Thursday's first meeting on the scandal by members of the House ethics committee.
Hastert said Democrats looking for advantage in the Nov. 7 midterm elections wish he would "fold my tent and others would fold our tent and they would sweep the House." All 435 House seats and 33 of the 100 Senate seats are at stake in next month's election.
An extraordinary political spectacle surrounded the committee's first scheduled meeting since Foley's resignation and the fallout that followed. Some key Republicans publicly blamed Hastert for failing to take action after he was warned about the messages, and a former Foley aide said he told Republican leaders about the Florida congressman's conduct years earlier than they have acknowledged.
With Republicans concerned about maintaining their congressional majority in November elections, political support for Hastert was ebbing. Republican officials said at least a few disgruntled members of the party's rank and file had discussed whether to call on the speaker to step aside. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
Hastert told the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday night that he has no thoughts of resigning. He blamed ABC News, which broke the Foley e-mail story, and Democratic operatives for the mushrooming scandal.
The Justice Department, meanwhile, ordered House officials to preserve all records related to Foley's electronic correspondence with teenagers. The request for record preservation is often followed by search warrants and subpoenas, and signal that investigators are moving closer to a criminal investigation.
Kirk Fordham, the former Foley aide, said in an interview with The Associated Press that more than three years ago he had "more than one conversation with senior staff at the highest level of the House of Representatives asking them to intervene." He declined to identify them, but officials said Scott Palmer, Hastert's chief of staff, was one of them. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
Palmer said through a spokesman, "What Kirk Fordham said did not happen."
Fordham resigned Wednesday as chief of staff to Congressman Thomas Reynolds, the House Republican campaign chief who says he alerted Hastert to concerns about Foley last spring.
Fordham disputed allegations that he covered up any misdeeds by Foley. "At no point ever did I ask anyone to block any inquiries," said Fordham, who was Foley's longtime chief of staff until leaving in January 2004.
Congressman Roy Blunt, third-ranking Republican leader, pointedly told reporters he would have handled the Foley matter differently than Hastert, had he known of it.
"I think I could have given some good advice here, which is, you have to be curious, you have to ask all the questions you can think of," Blunt said. "You absolutely can't decide not to look into activities because one individual's parents don't want you to."
Ron Bonjean, Hastert's spokesman, said the issue now rests with the ethics committee.
"We fully expect that the bipartisan panel will do what it needs to do to investigate this matter and protect the integrity of the House," Bonjean said.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said the committee needs to question Hastert and the rest of the Republican leadership under oath.
"The children, their parents, the public, and our colleagues deserve answers and those who covered up Mark Foley's behavior must be held accountable," Pelosi said.
Foley, 52, resigned last Friday after he was confronted with sexually explicit electronic messages he had sent teenage male pages, who work as messengers in Congress. He has since entered an alcohol rehabilitation facility at an undisclosed location. Through his lawyer, he has said he is gay but denied any sexual contact with minors.
His abrupt departure and the ensuing sex scandal has shaken Republican confidence _ and poll numbers _ and plunged Hastert and others into an intensive effort to grapple with conflicting claims about what senior lawmakers knew, when they learned it and what they did about it.
In the Nov. 7 elections, all 435 House seats and 33 of the 100 in the Senate are up for grabs, as well as 36 state governors. Largely because of the Iraq war, probable voters are indicating to pollsters that President George W. Bush's Republicans are likely to lose seats. Democrats could take control of the chamber by picking up 15 seats.
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