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By MARA LEE
From one direction, embattled House Speaker Dennis Hastert took it on the chin Tuesday when an influential conservative newspaper demanded his resignation for not intervening sooner in what has become the biggest sex scandal to rock Washington since the days of Monica Lewinsky.
In an editorial Tuesday, the Washington Times, a voice from the right that carries weight in the Bush administration and conservative quarters in Washington and beyond, called for Hastert to step down.
It blasted him for essentially shrugging off indications that Rep. Mark Foley, one of Hastert’s deputies, was engaging in sexual conversations _ and possibly sexual activity _ with underage males, either when they were serving as congressional pages or soon after their terms ended.
Also from the right side of the political spectrum, a coalition of more than 70 conservative, "pro-family" groups expressed concern that House GOP leaders may have shrugged off early warnings about Foley’s behavior in order not to offend the "radical gay rights movement."
"It appears that the conservative majority has given way to political correctness," said a statement from the Arlington Group coalition, which includes the Family Research Council, the American Family Association and the Free Congress Foundation.
But Hastert, who told conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh on Tuesday that he was not even considering resigning, also got a pat on the back from another direction when President Bush weighed in.
It was the first time Bush spoke publicly on the politically explosive subject since Foley abruptly resigned the Florida seat he had held for 12 years Friday after transcripts of his online conversations _ some sexually explicit and others suggestive _ became public.
"I was dismayed and shocked to learn about Congressman Foley’s unacceptable behavior," Bush said in Stockton, Calif., adding that "any violation of the law should be prosecuted."
Even so, Bush said he retains confidence in Hastert, who is coming under increasing flak for not acting sooner or strongly enough after reports surfaced in 2005 that Foley was engaging in inappropriate interactions with young male pages.
"I know that he wants all the facts to come out," Bush said from Stockton, where he was visiting an elementary school and campaigning for Republican candidates. "I’m confident he will provide whatever leadership he can to law enforcement in this investigation."
Bush’s comments came as Republicans, fearful the Foley scandal could cost them control of the House, tried to dismiss political whoops of war from Democrats, who view the same possible shift of power with glee.
They also came as one of the most tawdry accounts yet of Foley’s sexual activity surfaced on ABC News on Tuesday, which made public an explicit transcript of an apparent sexual encounter that occurred as Foley waited to vote on the House floor.
While not attacking Hastert by name, the coalition of conservative groups called for a "full investigation" and said the GOP leaders "must demand the resignation of any (House) member who has acted improperly in this matter."
But another voice from the right, the Focus on the Family advocacy group, decried the "political" tone that the controversy has triggered.
"Those truly interested in protecting children from online predators should spend less time calling for Speaker Hastert to step down, and more time demanding that the Justice Department enforce existing laws."
Hastert has said that Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., who heads the board that oversees the congressional page program, confronted Foley about a series of suggestive e-mails Foley sent to a former page from Louisiana last fall, and told him to stop e-mailing the young man.
Hastert said no further action was taken because the e-mails stopped and the teenager’s parents wanted no publicity. Both Hastert and Shimkus said they had no knowledge until last Friday of the explicit instant-messenger conversations Foley had been having with pages or former pages, some as long as three years ago.