Republicans were in disarray last night after a leading conservative newspaper called on Dennis Hastert, the Speaker, to resign, and an open rift developed between Mr Hastert and his top deputy, John Boehner, the majority leader in the House of Representatives.
The developments were further evidence that the scandal over a possible cover-up of the sexually explicit e-mail advances of the former Republican congressman Mark Foley to teenage House pages is turning into a pre-electoral debacle for the party.
Five days after details of the lurid e-mails were first revealed, the focus of the scandal has shifted from Mr Foley now in rehab for alleged alcoholism to the Speaker himself, the third-ranking figure in the US constitutional structure.
The questions are essentially two: why Mr Hastert did not take more vigorous action when word first reached him about Mr Foley's correspondence with the male pages late last year and whether he and his colleagues tried to keep the potentially explosive affair quiet, at least until after November's mid-term elections.
But even the more innocent explanation has outraged not just Democrats, who yesterday were rushing out new campaign ads for some of the most closely contested races Republicans too, especially the social conservatives who are the party's most reliable supporters, are appalled.
Their anger found thunderous echo in The Washington Times, normally loyal to the party leadership, which urged Mr Hastert "to do the only right thing and resign his speakership at once". "Either he was grossly negligent," said the Times, "for not taking the red flags fully into account and ordering a swift investigation, for not even remembering the order of events leading up to last week's revelations or he deliberately looked the other way in hopes that a brewing scandal would simply blow away." The affair, it added, was "a disgrace for every single Republican member of Congress".
Last night the Speaker flatly refused to step down. He would stay in his post and "lead the Republicans to another majority in the 110th Congress ".
But the demand that Mr Hastert fall on his sword is a sign of the fear in the party that without drastic action, the scandal could seal defeat at the polls next month.
President George Bush issued an expression of support for the Speaker, but he was "shocked and dismayed" at the behaviour of Mr Foley, who sent explicit messages to some pages, high-school students aged 16 and 17, from as early as 2003, and who is now under investigation by the FBI.
Another sign of the turmoil has been the friction between Mr Hastert and Mr Boehner. In a radio interview, the latter said he had been assured by the Speaker that the matter had been dealt with months ago. "It's in his corner, it's his responsibility," Mr Boehner declared, signalling that Mr Hastert should not look to him for any support.
The Speaker's version is that Mr Foley was quietly admonished after some far milder correspondence was brought to his attention. Mr Foley, who insisted he had only "tried to be friendly," was told to cease all contact with the page in question. Mr Hastert says he only learnt of the truly lurid material on Friday last week, when it became public and Mr Foley abruptly resigned.
Mr Foley said through his lawyer yesterday that he was abused by a clergyman as a teenager, but accepted full responsibility for sending salacious messages to the pages. He declined to identify the clergyman or the church, but Mr Foley is Roman Catholic. Mr Foley also acknowledged for the first time that he is a homosexual, saying the disclosure was part of his " recovery".
Many Republicans and non-partisan analysts believe that the damage done by the scandal to the party's hopes in November could be irreparable, whether the Speaker stays or goes. Until last week Republicans had been staging a modest comeback, in line with Mr Bush's own rise in the polls, amid hopes that they might after all cling on to control of the House, considered the chamber most vulnerable to a Democratic takeover. Now, some experts believe the Democrats could capture not only the 435-member House, where they need a net gain of just 15 seats, but also the Senate, where the 55-45 Republican majority has been considered almost impregnable.Reuse content