The leader of the House of Representatives, Speaker Dennis Hastert, will take responsibility for the unfolding page sex scandal but insist he will stay on as head of House Republicans, a party official said Thursday, as the Ethics Committee weighed when and how to act.
At a news conference, Hastert will also ask the Ethics Committee to consider new rules so that anyone making inappropriate contact with pages be disciplined. In the case of staff, they would be fired; lawmakers would be subject to expulsion, the official said.
Hastert also was ready to appoint an outside expert to investigate the scandal and recommend changes to the page program, virtually as old as Congress itself.
As Hastert huddled with aides to write a statement to be delivered at the news conference in his home state of Illinois, the ethics panel opened an investigation into the unfolding scandal over Rep. Mark Foley's come-ons to teenage congressional pages and accusations _ even by some Republicans _ that House leaders failed to protect the teens.
The committee, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, sat in closed session to take up a matter that imperils Hastert's leadership and has stirred extraordinary GOP infighting with midterm elections barely a month away.
Leaders of the ethics panel said they would speak publicly about the session afterwards.
Hastert was to try to draw a contrast with Democrats in past scandals, the official said, asserting that the speaker forced Foley's resignation as soon as he became aware of his contacts with young pages.
A former House aide said Wednesday that he alerted the speaker's staff more than three years ago that Foley's conduct was a problem.
The swift-moving developments came as a furor mounted over the revelations about Foley and his resignation last Friday. Negative fallout for Republicans struggling to keep control of Congress was apparent in the latest AP-Ipsos poll, conducted this week after the Foley revelations surfaced.
About half of likely voters said recent disclosures of corruption and scandal in Congress will be very or extremely important in their vote Nov. 7, and Democrats enjoyed a nearly 2-to-1 advantage as the party better able to fight corruption.
All 435 seats in the House are at stake in the elections and the Democrats have a good chance of wresting control of the chamber from the Republicans.
Hastert asserted Wednesday that any Republicans urging his ouster were playing into the hands of Democrats and blamed his problems on the media and Democratic operatives, even suggesting former President Bill Clinton might somehow be involved.
"All I know is what I hear and what I see," he said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune on the eve of the ethics meeting. "I saw Bill Clinton's adviser, Richard Morris, was saying these guys knew about this all along, If somebody had this info, when they had it, we could have dealt with it then."
In fact, Morris, who has advised both parties, offered no independent knowledge of Democrats being aware of the Foley communications before they came out. He said on Fox News that an unidentified reporter told him a Democratic leader had known about the matter.
Hastert said "people funded by George Soros," a liberal billionaire who has plowed millions into this and other election campaigns, want to see the scandal blow up. And he warned that when the GOP "base finds out who's feeding this monster, they're not going to be happy."
ABC News, which broke the story last week, has said former Republican-sponsored pages _ not Democratic politicians or operatives _ were the source of revelations about lurid instant messages, after the network reported flirtatious e-mails from Foley to one page.
Some leading Republicans have 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 the elections, support for Hastert was ebbing. Republican officials said at least a few disgruntled members of the Republican 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. with minors.
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