WASHINGTON — Despite efforts at damage control, the Republican leadership of the House remains under fire from its own conservative base for its handling of the sex scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley (R) of Florida.
Calls are continuing among social conservatives for the resignation of House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois and other members of the House GOP leadership, who are being faulted for not recognizing that "overfriendly" e-mails Mr. Foley had sent to a male former House page merited further investigation. Foley resigned last Friday after additional electronic messages – sexually explicit in nature – to other teenage male ex-pages came to light.
When asked Tuesday if Speaker Hastert should resign, conservative activist Paul Weyrich said, "Yes, I think it would be better if he did."
"One of the things that people say to me all the time is, in Washington nobody takes responsibility for anything," continued Mr. Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation. "And I think that he, having not delved into this the way he should have, has to take responsibility and therefore has to resign."
Weyrich took part in a conference call Monday to discuss the Foley scandal with other social-conservative leaders, who command the respect of millions of voters around the country. Republican strategists are worried that the Foley scandal – which goes to the heart of the party's proclaimed goal of protecting traditional family values – will depress turnout among conservatives on Election Day and hurt Republican candidates, possibly tilting control of the House or even the Senate to the Democrats.
Until his resignation, Foley was chair of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, which Hastert critics say should have given the House GOP leadership all the more reason to further investigate Foley's interactions with former pages when the leaders learned of the e-mails earlier this year. Other conservatives who have called on Hastert to resign include David Bossie, head of the group Citizens United, and conservative radio host Michael Reagan. On Tuesday, an editorial in the conservative Washington Times called on Hastert to resign.
Some conservative groups are holding off on calls for Hastert or the entire GOP leadership to resign, pending investigation.
"We think calls for resignation are a little premature right now," says Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs for the Family Research Council. "An investigation is definitely warranted. The question is who knew what when and who was trying to cover up what."
Former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer stuck by Hastert's side in a statement released Monday: "I join my voice to House Speaker Dennis Hastert in calling for a full investigation to determine whether anyone from either party knew about the abusive conduct alleged from former Rep. Foley," said Mr. Bauer, president of the group American Values.
Hastert and other House leaders acknowledge they were informed earlier this year of Foley's e-mail contact with a former House page, which Republicans have called "overfriendly" but not overtly sexual, and that Foley was told to stay away from the pages. But they assert that they were unaware of other, explicitly sexual messages sent to other former pages in 2003.
Political analysts say a Hastert resignation would probably make matters worse for Republicans, with just five weeks to go before the Nov. 7 election and the margin of control in the 435-seat House just 15 seats.
"It [resignation] would, in effect, be a concession that the leadership aided and abetted all of this, and that they were complicit in a coverup," says Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan political analyst. "It's an awful situation no matter what, but I think it probably would throw gasoline on the fire. At this point, the leadership can say, 'Look, the ones [e-mails] we saw weren't explicit and we probably should have done more, but had we seen the explicit ones, of course we would have.' "
James Thurber, head of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, says he believes Hastert is in trouble, but not just on the Foley scandal. "He didn't do much on Cunningham, DeLay, or with reforms," he says, referring to other disgraced former Republican members. Hastert has also faced questions over a land deal in which he reportedly made a profit of more than $2 million after personally intervening in a big transportation and infrastructure bill.
"If the conference wants him out, then he's out," Mr. Thurber says. But regarding the GOP battle to keep control of Congress, he adds, "It probably doesn't help, because it points out all the failings and it makes the story go longer."
Weyrich, the conservative activist, believes a Hastert resignation would help. "Republicans could then say, 'We take responsibility for things,' " he says. "I don't think he will, by the way."
On Monday, Florida Republicans selected state Rep. Joe Negron to run in Foley's stead – but Foley's name will still appear on the ballot, making Mr. Negron's task formidable. Voters will be instructed that any votes for Foley will count for Negron. But the No. 2 House Republican, John Boehner of Ohio, said later that day on conservative radio host Sean Hannity's show, "How many people are going to hold their nose to do that?"
Democrats, meanwhile, sought to expand the collateral damage. Tuesday, the Democratic National Committee went after the chair of the House Republican campaign committee, Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, who is in a tight race for reelection and who had also been informed earlier this year about less-explicit e-mails Foley had sent an ex-page.