The leader of the House of Representatives defended himself as political support among members of his Republican party ebbed and the House ethics committee had to decide how to launch a credible investigation of former congressman Mark Foley's salacious computer messages to teenage interns.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert said any Republicans urging his ouster were playing into the hands of the opposition. 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 congressional elections wish he would "fold my tent and others would fold our tent and they would sweep the House."
All 435 seats in the Republican-led House are at stake in the voting.
An extraordinary political spectacle surrounded the ethics 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 congressman's conduct years earlier than they have acknowledged.
With Republicans concerned about maintaining their congressional majority in the elections, political support for Hastert was ebbing. Republican officials said at least a few disgruntled members of the party 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 himself apparently was torn over how to proceed. Although he repeatedly has said he would not step down, he was reported to have told a conservative activist and critic that he might consider such a move to spare the party further problems.
Paul Weyrich quoted Hastert as telling him in a phone call Wednesday that "if he thought that resigning would be helpful to the Republicans maintaining the majority, he would do it," Congressional Quarterly reported.
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 Rep. 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.
Rep. Roy Blunt, third-ranking Republican House 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."
House Majority Leader John Boehner said in a radio interview Tuesday: "I believe I talked to the speaker and he told me it had been taken care of. My position is it's in his corner, it's his responsibility."
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 interns known as pages. 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.
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