Foley Dredges Up Scandal Problem for GOP

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 11, 2006; 11:17 AM

At the beginning of the year it was all the rage -- the topic that would dominate politics. But by mid-year it seemed to have faded into a non-issue, ignored by both lawmakers and citizens alike. Now in the final days of Election 2006, ethics in government has risen again as key factor in tight congressional contests. And for that, thank former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) for getting embroiled in a sex scandal involving former congressional pages.

Starting in January, Congress became enmeshed in a long series of official misbehaviors. The capstone event was the guilty plea that month by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff for trying to corrupt public officials.

Three of his business associates and then Rep. Robert Ney (R-Ohio) later filed their own guilty pleas.

But lawmakers, sensing a lack of interest among voters, never took the issue to heart and even killed an ambitious lobby reform bill which had been designed to protect Congress from a backlash from back home. Voters did not seem to believe that Congress could clean itself up and did not demand that it do so.

Until October's surprise. Foley resigned and the Republican leadership in the House devolved into finger-pointing over who was responsible for allowing the Florida lawmaker to continue to prey on young pages despite repeated warnings about his activities going back to 2000.

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) refused to resign over the furor but the damage was done. GOP approval ratings dropped and the ethics issue rose again as an important part of voters' thinking in the midterm election.

One result: candidates for Congress are seeking to win over voters more than ever by hurling the label of lobbyist at their opponents. In close contests from Connecticut to California, Republicans and Democrats alike are attacking each other for being too close to "special interests."

"Voters are tying both of these scandals together," said Paul A. Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists, a lobbyist trade group in the capital. "First with Abramoff and now with Foley, corruption has risen to play a big role in this election. It disappoints me, but it's happening."

Lobbyists have never been popular. But politicians are betting more than usual that ethical lapses on Capitol Hill have been so pronounced lately that voters will object to congressional candidates who appear to be too involved with professional favor seekers. Candidates and independent organizations have run hundreds of political ads that suggest that the incumbent, the challenger or both have been co-opted by narrow interests or, worse, have actually lobbied themselves. Many more such ads are planned in the nation's tightest House and Senate races, election experts say. And the reason is this: Foley has rekindled corruption as an issue at the top of voters' minds.

Democrats have a clear advantage on the topic, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll this month. When respondents were asked which party they trusted to handle various issues, Democrats led Republicans on ethics by 19 points - 49 percent to 30 percent. The chief reason apparently is that most of the lobbyists and lawmakers caught misbehaving - from Abramoff to Foley - are Republicans.

Republicans say they are in grave danger of losing the seat of former House majority leader Tom DeLay (Tex.), as well as those held by Ney -- who agreed to plead guilty to corruption charges in the investigation into the activities of Abramoff -- and Rep. Don Sherwood (Pa.), who has been embroiled in a scandal over an affair.

In addition, Republicans have largely given up on holding the seat of retiring Rep. Jim Kolbe (Ariz.), and strategists are pessimistic about retaining open seats in Colorado and Iowa and the seat now held by Rep. John N. Hostettler (Ind.).

Some Republicans also said Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.), the National Republican Congressional Committee's chairman and one of the GOP leaders who knew about a non-graphic communication between Foley and a former page, could face an even tougher challenge for his Buffalo-area seat. Reynolds and Hastert sniped at each other over the weekend about who knew what and when.

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