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Republican insiders and political strategists admit privately that embattled Speaker of the House Dennis J. Hastert cannot survive the rapidly-expanding and increasingly damaging Congressional page scandal.
"There’s no doubt about it: Hastert has to go," a GOP political campaign operative said late Wednesday as the House Ethics Committee prepared to meet today to investigate former Repubican Rep. Mark Foley’s incredibly bizzare behavior towards young male pages along with Hastert’s failure to take action.
Kirk Fordham, chief of staff to National Republican Congressional Committee head Rep. Thomas Reynolds and a former top aide to Foley, resigned Wednesday and told reporters he had warned Hastert’s office about Foley’s inappropriate behavior three years ago but that the Speaker did nothing.
Like Foley, Fordham is gay, as are a number of top Republican staff members in the House, Senate and national GOP committees. Investigators for the House Ethics Committee want to know if gays in the House conspired to protect Foley.
"We’re talking tip of the iceberg here," one House Ethics Committee staffer tells Capitol Hill Blue. "This thing will just keep getting worse."
Committee investigators are also focusing on the actions, or inaction, of Hastert’s chief of staff, Scott Palmer who some say may have stonewalled any investigation of Foley.
For Republicans, already struggling to hold on to control of the House and Senate, the scandal could not have come at a worse time. New polls show support for Democrats increasing as problems mount for the GOP.
The Associated Press reports:
Speaker Dennis Hastert’s job is on the line as members of the House ethics committee decide how to launch a credible investigation of former Rep. Mark Foley’s salacious computer messages to teenage pages.
An extraordinary political spectacle surrounded the committee’s first scheduled meeting Thursday. 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 the Nov. 7 elections, political support for Hastert was ebbing. Republican officials said at least a few disgruntled members of the GOP 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 Rep. Thomas Reynolds, R-N.Y., the House GOP 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 of Missouri, third-ranking GOP 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, R-Ohio, 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 of California 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. 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.
The ethics committee had endured a partisan stalemate for 16 months that prevented its members from launching any new investigations. The committee broke the deadlock in May by announcing four separate investigations, including the first congressional probe of a lawmaker linked to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Now, the committee, which is equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, has the sensitive job of investigating the House speaker, the top official in the chamber. When the committee investigated Democratic Speaker Jim Wright and Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich, it hired outside counsels.
The ethics panel also hired an outside lawyer to conduct a broad sex-and-drugs investigation in the early 1980s that ended with the censure of two House members for consensual relationships with House pages, who are high school students who work on Capitol Hill delivering messages and running other errands.
The outside counsel in the Wright investigation said the committee must hire an independent investigator to convince the public it can conduct a nonpartisan investigation of congressional leaders.
Richard Phelan, hired to investigate Wright, said an outside counsel was key to a credible investigation.
"The perception outside (Washington) is that Congress and the speaker and those running Congress have screwed this thing up," Phelan said. "I think you probably have to start with Hastert."