Hastert Rejects Calls To Give Up Leadership

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 4, 2006

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) yesterday rebuffed calls to resign his leadership role, which have come from conservatives and liberals alike, but public ruptures in the ranks of the House Republican leadership continued to surface in the wake of a page scandal.

Hastert and fellow House Republicans stressed that they will contain the fallout from revelations that senior GOP leaders had known for months about the inappropriate communications between former representative Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and at least two teenage male pages. But several conservative organizations, including the editorial board of the Washington Times, have now called on Hastert to step down, charging that he was derelict in not investigating the "over-friendly" e-mails that his staff had been aware of since late 2005.

A public show of support for the speaker by many House members masks fears that Hastert's hands-off management style since 1999, when he ascended almost accidentally to one of the highest offices in the land, may finally end his career. Just five weeks before midterm elections, most House members said Hastert will almost certainly not step down before voters go to the polls. But a GOP political disaster in the wake of the Foley revelations could usher him out of the post and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) into the speakership.

"I think Speaker Hastert's done a pretty good job under trying circumstances regarding our members. He has stepped up," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a close ally of Hastert's. But he added that the ultimate responsibility rests with Hastert. "The truth is, if you want to be a page, you have to be appointed by the speaker. This is the speaker's program."

Hastert's critics say the Foley episode is the latest in a long line of Republican leadership failures. Hastert largely stood on the sidelines last year as legal peril mounted for his top lieutenant, then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). Then he intervened to try to save DeLay, first by trying to change House rules to allow an indicted member to maintain his leadership post, then by helping to purge the House ethics committee of members and staffers who had challenged DeLay's bare-knuckled tactics. Neither effort worked.

It took months for Hastert to respond to the influence-peddling scandal triggered by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and, even then, his personal pledge to tighten the rules governing congressional lobbying did not produce significant legislation. House GOP leaders seemed to have been blindsided when Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) pleaded guilty to accepting millions of dollars in bribes. And after pleading guilty to corruption charges, Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) remains in the House.

Hastert continues to say that his staff's failure to thoroughly investigate the initial e-mails from Foley to a 16-year-old Louisiana boy was understandable, given the vague, friendly nature of the exchange. But others see a pattern. "I think what has been revealed about the way in which the Republican leadership, and Hastert in particular, has handled this matter is fully consistent with his prior behavior as speaker," said Thomas E. Mann, a scholar on Congress at the Brookings Institution and author of a critical new book on the decline of Congress's role in governance." This is a man who has never taken seriously his institutional roll as a constitutional officer of the United States and the head of the whole House, not just the head of the Republican Party."

In a round of interviews with conservative talk show hosts, Hastert said he intends to lead a Republican majority in the next Congress. Fellow House Republicans fell in line. "For a normal political leader, it would be difficult to withstand this, but Hastert is seen as a grandfatherly figure in the House. He's seen as having our best interests at heart," said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.).

"We've been through far worse," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), the vice chairman of the House Republican Conference. "This is not a problem. This is not anything that's going to tear up the leadership."

Still, such tears are growing increasingly evident. Last week, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in an interview with The Washington Post that he told Hastert about Foley's inappropriate behavior last spring and was told that the issue was being dealt with. Boehner then sought to deny that he had said it. Yesterday, he returned to his original contention, emphasizing Hastert's responsibility for the page program.

"I believe I talked to the speaker, and he told me it had been taken care of," Boehner told a Cincinnati radio host. "And my position is it's in his corner, it's his responsibility. The clerk of the House who runs the page program, the page board -- all report to the speaker. And I believe it had been dealt with."

At issue, say some former Republican leadership aides, may be Hastert's leadership style. Affable and approachable, Hastert emerged seemingly from nowhere to become speaker in 1999. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) had been drummed out of Congress after a disastrous election season, and his heir apparent, Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), resigned amid allegations of an extramarital affair. DeLay, who was then majority whip, engineered Hastert's rise from chief deputy whip to speaker.

From the start, Hastert, 64, took on the role of father confessor, a shoulder to cry on as DeLay knocked heads and kept the House moving. But two former House leadership aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of hurting their relationship with the speaker, said DeLay's undoing may have been Hastert's -- and, in retrospect, may have allowed Foley's alleged behavior to go unchecked.

Under indictment and out of the leadership, DeLay was fighting for his political career when Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.) brought Foley's suspicious e-mails to the leadership in November 2005. That same month, Cunningham pleaded guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes.

With DeLay gone and Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.) serving as both majority whip and majority leader, the House leadership simply lacked the bodies to forcefully take on the Foley issue, the former aides said. The page program was the speaker's domain, but the speaker, already disposed toward delegating responsibility, was getting tired of all the scandals.

"The speaker has been preoccupied and distracted for more than a year," one former leadership aide said.

"Frankly," said the second, "he was tired."

Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean disputed that assertion. Hastert was unaware, until last week, of the sexually explicit instant messages that set off the firestorm, Bonjean said, and when they surfaced, the speaker immediately condemned the behavior, called for a criminal investigation and set up a hot line for pages and former pages. As for the previous scandals, Bonjean said: "People want to go into hindsight, to armchair-quarterback, but the fact of the matter is, the speaker has successfully navigated members through a very, very difficult Congress."

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