By DALE McFEATTERS
In the national capital, denials of a rumored resignation are always strongest just before the actual resignation and, if that remains the case, Dennis Hastert’s tenure as House speaker may be nearing an end.
The instant cause of his departure will be his handling of the case of Mark Foley, the gay Republican lawmaker who abruptly resigned after it was disclosed he had been hitting on young male congressional pages in sexually charged e-mails and that Hastert’s office had known of it for as long as three years.
Even Hastert’s top lieutenants, including Republican leader John Boehner who is in line to succeed him and the party’s House campaign chief, Rep. Thomas Reynolds, say the speaker had been warned, in their case, earlier this year.
Most tellingly, key Republicans are distancing themselves from him. Having forewarned Hastert, Boehner said, "My position is it’s in his corner, it’s his responsibility." And the House’s third ranking Republican, Joe Barton of Texas, told reporters that he would have handled the whole matter differently.
Hastert’s explanation for this scandal exploding on his watch went beyond lame and into the realm of the weird. Who is responsible? According to Hastert, it’s the Democrats. Also ABC News and the media generally. But mostly the Democrats, former President Clinton, liberal billionaire George Soros and unnamed Democratic "operatives."
The speaker told Rush Limbaugh, "We have a story to tell, and the Democrats have _ in my view have _ put this thing forward to try to block us from telling the story. They’re trying to put us on defense."
This is doubly damning. As conservative commentator George Will and others have noted, it effectively concedes that there was a cover up and further noted that the cover up would have worked if only the Democrats hadn’t ruined everything by shooting off their mouths.
Hastert might get a pass if that were the only blot on his record. But he has presided over one of the most dilatory, unproductive House sessions in modern history. Three senior Republicans have resigned in disgrace, one of them is in jail and another is headed there. Top aides to the GOP leadership pled guilty in a lobbying scandal. Reform bills intended to prevent a recurrence languish still.
The speaker’s answer for the Foley problem has been to call for investigations, four of them so far, perhaps in the hope that the whole mess will disappear into Investigation Land and he can change the subject.
In a brief press appearance Thursday, Hastert said he plans on being House speaker in the next Congress. It’s a form of denial. The Republicans know they badly need a fresh start.
(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com.)