House Republicans Move to Back Hastert

President Bush visits the Friendship-Woodridge charter school in the District. The president has announced his support for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in the wake of the scandal involving then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.).
President Bush visits the Friendship-Woodridge charter school in the District. The president has announced his support for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in the wake of the scandal involving then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.). (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Jim VandeHei and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 6, 2006

Republicans are calculating that the smartest way to survive the Mark Foley sex scandal is to rally around House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and hope that no new evidence surfaces before Election Day that shows GOP leaders could have done more to prevent the congressman from preying on young male pages, according to several GOP lawmakers and strategists.

The White House and top House Republicans remain deeply nervous that the scandal will hurt them politically, and that additional information will come out contradicting statements by Hastert and others that they were unaware of Foley's sexual messages to underage boys, the lawmakers and officials said.

For now, they said, it would be politically disastrous for Republicans to oust Hastert because it would be viewed as akin to a public admission of guilt in the scandal, as well as a pre-election victory that would buoy Democrats and help their turnout efforts.

"Calls for resignation are just inappropriate," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.). "I would be absolutely shocked if the facts led us to that he knew more than he says he knew."

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said every Republican lawmaker is rejecting calls from some conservative leaders to oust Hastert. "You are seeing a rally-around-the-speaker effort more than anything else," he said.

Several GOP lawmakers in tough races said voters are not reacting as harshly to the scandal as they first feared, buying Hastert even more room to save his job. Still, lawmakers are privately furious with how Hastert and other leaders have handled the scandal. It has created tension among GOP leaders who have sometimes viewed each other suspiciously since House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) took over after the resignation of Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). And many expect that the worst is still to come.

Top advisers to Hastert have accused Boehner of undermining the speaker's campaign to save his job. They pointed to Boehner's comments earlier in the week that it was Hastert's responsibility to fully investigate charges that Foley was making improper contact with underage boys. "That still stings," said one top adviser, who believed that the remark "was pretty close" to an insurrection.

Kevin Madden, a spokesman for Boehner, said his boss was "in no way trying to blame Hastert. It was merely a description" of responsibility for the page program, which the speaker's office technically oversees.

Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for Hastert, played down alleged tensions. "We are all sticking together through this. This has been a tough time for the House Republican majority, and we are going to make it through," he said.

A top Boehner adviser said the majority leader wanted to make it clear he is not to blame for the leadership's handling of allegations against Foley. "This has opened up and made more obvious some managerial problems in the speaker's office," the adviser said. Boehner has made it clear to colleagues that he plans to run for speaker if Hastert steps down or for minority leader if Republicans lose the House in November.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), in a phone call to Hastert this week, told him that critical comments Blunt made about Hastert were taken out of context.

"Those who are trying to create the appearance of disunity between myself and the speaker should know: There is not, and has not been, any daylight between the speaker and me," Blunt said in a statement yesterday.

Even if some GOP leaders turn on him, Hastert has a very powerful ally in President Bush. White House aides are nervous that the controversy has clouded, at least for now, Bush's effort to try to shape the midterm elections around the issue of terrorism.

But they are warning against a quick ouster of Hastert. Bush called Hastert last night to offer support and to thank him for his public statement taking responsibility for the situation, a White House spokeswoman said.

This approach comes as a sharp contrast to the administration's handling of the controversy in 2002 over Sen. Trent Lott's comments about then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) -- which cost Lott (Miss.) his post as Senate GOP leader. In Lott's case, Bush was quick to nudge him out of power. The president, however, feels deeply indebted to Hastert, who has pushed through his agenda and has quietly provided advice on how to deal with a restive Republican Congress.

Still, many Republicans accused Hastert of badly bungling the political fallout of the Foley scandal and waiting until yesterday to take responsibility and decisive action to investigate the matter.

"I don't think anyone has handled this particularly well," said a top House Republican, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. Hastert and other leaders "are having to focus on staying clear of this scandal individually, and not thinking about reelecting people."

Others complained that Hastert's blame-the-media-and-Democrats strategy looks odd when conservatives are leading the charge for his resignation.

Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), who faces one of the toughest reelection fights in the country, said lawmakers will stand by Hastert -- at least until all the facts are known. "He is not the kind of guy you would think would condone this kind of behavior," he said. "Calling for someone's resignation is simply a political stunt if you don't have all the facts."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company