The abrupt resignation of a Florida congressman caught sending sexually explicit computer messages to teenage pages at the House of Representatives has developed into a full-blown Republican Party scandal with senior party leaders accusing each other of knowing about the e-mails for months and doing nothing about them.
Within hours of the departure of Mark Foley, a lawmaker from the Palm Beach area dogged for years by rumours about his sexuality, the party of "family values" turned on itself in an unseemly sequence of denials, accusations and counter-accusations in which the party's top leaders appeared frantic to save their own political skins.
The furore has sucked in the Speaker, the Majority Leader and the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, all of whom are now in the firing line just a few weeks before next month's pivotal mid-term elections.
Mr Foley's eye-popping indiscretions with the teenage boys who act as runners and factotums on Capitol Hill - including one lengthy exchange about masturbation and his own sexual arousal - might have been less damaging had he not also served as co-chair of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children.
That, in turn, has raised the age-old Washington question of who knew about the exchanges, and when they knew it. The House Speaker, Dennis Hastert, initially denied all knowledge before a few days ago, only to concede hours later that he might have been told about an e-mail exchange between Mr Foley and a page from Louisiana as long ago as last November.
In the early hours of a fast-moving weekend, the leader most directly in the firing line was Tom Reynolds, the Republican congressional committee chair who is already fighting for his political life in a close re-election fight in upstate New York. He acknowledged being told about the e-mail exchanges several months ago, but insisted he had not seen the messages themselves.
When it appeared that the party leadership itself was piling on to him, however, he responded with a statement saying he had briefed Mr Hastert on everything he knew.
The House Majority Leader, John Boehner, meanwhile, issued his own statement, saying he recalled a "brief, non-specific" conversation on the subject during the spring, but could remember nothing more.
Finally, on Saturday night, Mr Boehner and Mr Hastert clubbed together to denounce Mr Foley's behaviour as "an obscene breach of trust" that deserved a full criminal investigation.
Elected Republicans further down the food chain - whose jobs and majority status in the House are all under direct threat - were far from satisfied with that response, and demanded a full and immediate inquiry into the party leaders themselves.
"If they knew or should have known the extent of this problem, they should not serve in leadership," the Connecticut congressman Christopher Shays told The New York Times.
Mr Foley's e-mail exchange with the page from Louisiana was more suggestive than overtly sexual - asking the boy what he wanted for his birthday and asking him to send a digital photograph of himself.
The page, who has not been named, described the exchange as "sick, sick, sick" and forwarded the correspondence to his boss, Congressman Rodney Alexander. Mr Alexander then took the issue up with his party superiors.
Last Friday, ABC news released not only the e-mail exchange but also a subsequent instant message correspondence with another page that was much more explicitly sexual. Unconfirmed reports out of Washington suggest four or five pages in all may have come forward to denounce Mr Foley.
Democrats, meanwhile, are quietly ecstatic at the pickle their adversaries find themselves in. They now hope to pick up Mr Foley's seat in Florida - previously regarded as unassailable - and see improved chances of beating Mr Reynolds. If the media frenzy over the Foley resignation persists, it will also derail Republican plans to keep public attention focused on national security and the "war on terror", issues they see as key to preventing a Democratic takeover of the House, or Senate, or both.Reuse content