Dennis Hastert, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, was fighting for his political life yesterday as he faced a barrage of accusations about his failure to prevent the disgraced former Florida congressman, Mark Foley, from sending sexually suggestive messages to teenage boys working as pages on Capitol Hill.
Mr Hastert, the third-ranking constitutional officer behind the President and Vice-President, insisted he would not resign, saying that to do so would play straight into the hands of the Democratic Party, which hopes to retake control of the House and of the speakership in next month's mid-term elections.
The six-day-old scandal only continued to burn more brightly, however, as evidence emerged that pages were alerted to Mr Foley as long as 11 years ago, and that Mr Hastert's office was informed in 2003, if not earlier.
In a news conference held at his constituency in suburban Chicago, Mr Hastert remained vague about the exact chain of responsibility. "I don't know who knew what when," he said.
Several members of the Republican House leadership have been thrust into the spotlight over their failure to deal with Mr Foley's problem before a slew of his e-mails and instant messages to present and former pages were made public by ABC News last Friday. They, in turn, have switched their stories around, developed uncertain memories over certain conversations, denied that others ever took place, and generally given the impression of a usually disciplined party leadership in complete disarray.
Yesterday, the House Ethics Committee met in a much ballyhooed closed session whose possible outcomes could have included the appointment of an independent outside investigator. Instead, however, the Republican committee chair, Doc Hastings, said the bipartisan group had decided to set up an internal investigative subcommittee.
The subcommittee was expected to start issuing subpoenas immediately, and Mr Hastings said he hoped the investigation would proceed quickly and that members of Congress and their staff would have no reason to be anything other than forthcoming in their answers to the subcommittee's questions.
Mr Hastert, for his part, said he supported the committee investigation as well as a probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It is far from clear if such gestures will satisfy a growing chorus of indignant Republican congressional candidates in what was already slated to be a difficult election for many of them. One Republican locked into a tight race in Kentucky, Ron Lewis, has already asked Mr Hastert not to show up to a fundraiser where he had previously been slated to be a keynote speaker.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Mr Hastert said he took responsibility for the failure to discipline Mr Foley sooner, but he also lashed out at a panoply of political adversaries, both real and perceived. "When the base finds out who's feeding this monster, they're not going to be happy," he told the paper in a phone interview from his constituency in suburban Chicago. "The people who want to see this thing blow up are ABC News and a lot of Democratic operatives, people funded by George Soros." He also suggested that former aides to President Bill Clinton were somehow responsible for the scandal.
The fingers most directly pointing at the Speaker's office are, however, Republican ones. Congressman Rodney Alexander of Louisiana said he informed Mr Hastert's staff when one of his pages came to him last year with complaints about Mr Foley. Tom Reynolds, who is spearheading the Republican election campaign in the House, said he talked to the Speaker last spring something Mr Hastert says he does not recall.
Mr Hastert's number two, Majority Leader John Boehner, has switched stories a couple of times, but now says he too talked to Mr Hastert. "I believe I talked to the Speaker and he told me it had been taken care of," he told a radio interviewer. "My position is it's in his corner, it's his responsibility."
Most immediately damaging to Mr Hastert is Kirk Fordham, who worked as Mr Foley's chief of staff for 10 years and has just resigned as chief of staff to Mr Reynolds. As soon as he quit his job under circumstances that remain controversial he went public to say he had several conversations about Mr Foley's behaviour with "senior staff at the highest levels of the House of Representatives" as long as three years ago.
That prompted a straight denial from Mr Hastert's office. The Speaker's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, said in a statement: "What Kirk Fordham said did not happen."
The intra-party bickering is having a corrosive effect on the Republicans' chances of holding on to the House and Senate next month. Mr Foley's Florida seat, regarded as rock solid until a week ago, has now been given up for dead because Mr Foley's name, under Florida election law, will continue to appear on the ballot. Mr Reynolds, meanwhile, is one of two dozen House Republicans whose close races just got a whole lot more uncertain.
Among those calling for Mr Hastert's resignation is the editorial board of the conservative newspaper the Washington Times.Reuse content