President Praises Hastert at GOP Fundraiser in Chicago

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2006

CHICAGO, Oct. 12 -- President Bush demonstrated his support for embattled House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) on Thursday, joining him at a GOP fundraiser where he praised Hastert as selfless and an effective leader.

Bush, making his first appearance with Hastert since conservative activists called for the speaker's resignation because of his failure to stem the congressional page scandal, made it clear that he hopes Hastert continues as House leader.

"I am proud to be standing with the current speaker of the House who is going to be the future speaker of the House," Bush said.

The president offered his personal endorsement of Hastert at a reception that raised about $1.1 million for Republican House candidates Peter Roskam and David McSweeney at a downtown Chicago hotel. Hastert introduced Bush at the event, and the two stood side by side until Bush began his remarks.

Hastert came under fire from conservatives after Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) stepped down over sexually explicit electronic messages he sent to teenage boys who had served as congressional pages. Hastert's critics say he should have intervened sooner to address the inappropriate behavior, which some in Congress said has been known in some circles for years. Hastert, however, insists he did not learn about it until two weeks ago when Foley resigned.

The scandal has broken at a particularly inopportune time for Republicans, who are struggling to retain control of Congress in the face of growing public discontent with the Iraq war and economic anxieties that persist despite a surging stock market and gasoline prices that have fallen in recent weeks after sharp increases.

Since Foley resigned, Bush has gradually ramped up his public shows of support for Hastert. "This country is better off with Denny Hastert as the speaker, and it will be better off when he is the speaker" in the next Congress, Bush said.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) mocked the president's appearance with Hastert in a fundraising e-mail to supporters, calling it "a meeting of the no accountability caucus of the Republican Party."

Earlier in the day, Bush spoke at a conference on renewable energy in St. Louis, where he touted his administration's efforts to ease the nation's dependence on foreign oil by promoting and developing alternative fuels such as ethanol, hydrogen, solar and wind power.

A woman in the crowd stood up during Bush's remarks and chanted, "Out of Iraq now." Bush ignored her and continued his speech, and the event staff swiftly removed the heckler.

While the president was well received by the audience at the St. Louis Convention Center, some environmental advocates accuse him of not doing enough to promote renewable energy sources while turning his back on conservation tools within his reach, including requiring more stringent fuel-economy standards.

"The president's budget falls well short of his rhetoric when it comes to supporting the development of biofuels," said Jim Presswood, a federal energy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "After a year of volatile and record-high gas price, surely we can do more to break our oil addiction."

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