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The top House Republican, under fire for his handling of a Capitol Hill sex scandal, gained support on Wednesday but new questions arose about when he was told of a former congressman’s troubling behavior toward teenage boys.
A senior party aide said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who oversees the congressional intern program at the center of the scandal, could be forced out after the November 7 elections instead of immediately, as has been urged by some critics. Hastert has said he intends to stay on the job.
“Looks like right now he will keep his job for a maximum of one and one-half months,” said a top party aide, adding that in the meantime Hastert may fire some staffers. Other aides said it remained unclear how long he would stay.
Kirk Fordham resigned under pressure on Wednesday as a top congressional aide to another House Republican and was quoted by ABC News as saying he told Hastert’s chief of staff three years ago of inappropriate conduct by former Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley with interns.
Hastert has said he first learned of some of Foley’s most overtly sexually Internet messages to male congressional pages when they were disclosed last Friday by ABC, prompting Foley to resign and triggering a federal investigation.
Fordham told ABC that Hastert’s chief of staff, Scott Palmer, met with Foley regarding the situation and that Hastert knew about that meeting.
Palmer denied the assertion.
“What Kirk Fordham said did not happen,” he said in a brief statement.
A Republican leadership aide challenged Fordham’s veracity, noting he had been quoted earlier in the day as saying he was surprised to learn of Foley’s behavior.
Democrats seeking to win control of Congress in the November 7 elections renewed their charge that Republicans had placed partisan politics above protecting congressional pages.
SCANDAL ROCKS CONGRESS
The political firestorm has rocked the U.S. Congress, and buoyed Democratic hopes they can take back control of the House as well as the Senate in next month’s elections.
A few House Republicans have said they learned of Foley’s e-mails to a 16-year-old former page as early as late last year. The boy’s parents asked that the matter not be pursued.
Foley convinced colleagues the messages, one of which asked for a photo of the boy, were innocent.
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said if he had any prior knowledge about the matter he would have asked more questions.
“You absolutely can’t decide not to look into activities because one individual’s parents don’t want you to,” Blunt said in Springfield, Missouri.
Fordham, who earlier worked for Foley, resigned as chief of staff to Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, chairman of the House Republican campaign committee. Fordham helped advise Foley as the scandal unfolded last week.
“When I sought to help Congressman Foley and his family when his shocking secrets were being revealed, I did so as a friend of my former boss, not as Congressman Reynolds’ chief of staff,” Fordham said in a statement.
While the conservative Washington Times newspaper and some conservatives outside Congress have called on Hastert to step down, others, including President George W. Bush, have voiced support for him. Many House Republicans, at least publicly, took a wait-and-see approach.
On Wednesday, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the Republican Study Committee that claims about 100 members, and Republican Rep. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, chairman of the party’s Values Action Team with about 70 members, issued a joint statement in support of Hastert.
“Regardless of our reservations about how this matter was handled administratively, we believe Speaker Hastert is a man of integrity who has led our conference honorably,” the two wrote. “Speaker Dennis Hastert should not resign.”
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Jim Vicini)