WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — House Speaker Dennis Hastert was fighting for his political life Wednesday after new disclosures surfaced that his office knew that a Republican House member was sending sexually provocative messages to underage congressional pages as long as three years ago.
Hastert, R-Ill., already under fire from some conservative activists and fellow congressional Republicans — including members of his leadership team — remained largely out of sight Wednesday. He made no public appearances and did not call into a Chicago radio station for a scheduled on-air interview.
Pressure on Hastert has built since it was reported that an aide to Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-La., complained last year to Hastert’s office about an “overly friendly” e-mail message that Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., had sent to a teenage male page sponsored by Alexander. Alexander said he did not ask for any specific action at the request of the boy’s parents.
After Foley resigned last week amid the disclosure of more sexually explicit instant messages to at least one other male page, a member of Foley’s leadership team, Rep. Thomas Reynolds of New York, said he personally told Hastert about the initial message last spring. Hastert said he did not recall the conversation but did not challenge Reynolds’ account.
Reynolds has been vocal in trying to explain that the responsibility for responding to Foley’s behavior lay with Hastert, whom he called his “supervisor,” while Hastert’s No. 2, John Boehner of Ohio, said he also had spoken with Hastert about Foley.
Wednesday, another member of the Republican leadership, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, said he would have handled the entire matter differently last year.
“I think I could have given some good advice here, which is you have to be curious, you have to ask all the questions you can think of,” Blunt said. “You absolutely can’t decide not to look into activities because one individual’s parents don’t want you to.”
Should he stay or should he go?
Asked by talk-show host Rush Limbaugh whether he would quit, Hastert said this week: “I’m not going to do that.” But Republicans were rushing to distance themselves five weeks ahead of elections in which continued Republican control of the House was already in question.
In addition to Blunt, Boehner and Reynolds, Sen. John McCain of Arizona called for a group of former senators and others to investigate how the House handled the affair.
“We need to move forward quickly, and we need to reach conclusions and recommendations about who is responsible,” McCain said during a campaign speech for Sen. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island. “I think it needs to be addressed by people who are credible.”
Conservative activists and commentators also were criticizing the speaker.
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Fund-raiser Richard Viguerie, a leader in the conservative movement, was among those who called for Hastert to step down. “The fact that they just walked away from this, it sounds like they were trying to protect one of their own members rather than these young boys,” Viguerie said on Fox News.
The stridently conservative editorial page of The Washington Times joined the call, leading its pages Tuesday with the headline, “Quit, Hastert.”
The scandal has reinvigorated the campaign of Hastert’s Democratic challenger in the November election, John Laesch, who said Hastert was “absolutely” guilty of a cover-up Wednesday.
“I will challenge his word,” Laesch said in an interview on MSNBC-TV’s “Hardball.” “I will get out there and say so.”
Asked whether he believed Hastert was a man of integrity, Laesch told MSNBC-TV’s Chris Matthews: “I think that this issue has defined the clearest difference between myself and Mr. Hastert, that being I stand for honesty and integrity, and I’ll let the voters decide where he stands.”
The scandal has energized his supporters, said Laesch, 32, a former naval intelligence officer. “Our phone has been ringing off the hook, and this is they only thing people want to talk about.”
Republican disinvites Hastert
In a telling sign of Republicans’ discomfort with their own speaker, Rep. Ron Lewis, R-Ky., abruptly canceled an invitation for Hastert to join him at a fund-raiser next week.
“I’m taking the speaker’s words at face value,” Lewis told The Associated Press. “I have no reason to doubt him. But until this is cleared up, I want to know the facts. If anyone in our leadership has done anything wrong, then I will be the first in line to condemn it.”
But former Rep. Joe Scarborough, a Republican colleague of Foley’s from Florida during part of the 1990s, said Wednesday that the scandal probably would not be enough to end Hastert’s career.
The disclosures come too late in the campaign for Republicans, beginning with Karl Rove, the top party strategist, to embrace any alternative but to stand behind Hastert, Scarborough said in an interview with MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann.
That should be enough for Hastert to survive, Scarborough said, and it explains why Hastert’s defenders include President Bush, who praised Hastert this week as a father, a teacher and a coach “who cares about children.”
“I know he wants the facts to come out,” Bush said.Video: Scarborough discusses Foley scandal
What is not clear, however, is whether the Republicans will have the speakership for Hastert to occupy next January, Scarborough said Tuesday on his own MSNBC program, “Scarborough Country.”
Scarborough said he considered Foley a friend but stressed that he had not known about Foley’s behavior with pages. He called the e-mail and instant messages “abhorrent” and said they had “launched a sex scandal that may bring down the Republican Congress.”
Scarborough criticized Hastert for not responding to Foley’s behavior when he first learned about it, saying he had a responsibility to inform other members — including Democratic members — “that their own pages could be in danger.”
“He doesn’t remember it?” Scarborough said of Hastert’s insistence that he could not recall his discussion with Reynolds. “Exactly how often does one have that kind of conversation in today’s Congress?”
By MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson with MSNBC-TV’s Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough and The Associated Press.
© 2013 msnbc.com