updated 10/6/2006 10:01:49 AM ET 2006-10-06T14:01:49

The final two years of President Bush's term could be bleak for Republicans if the congressional-page scandal roiling Washington ends up costing them control of the House or Senate or even both.

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Republicans are grumbling — some publicly, most privately — about how House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other House leaders have handled the scandal surrounding sexually explicit e-mails that resigned Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., sent to teenage male pages.

GOP strategists fear that Democrats could spend the next two years tying up the administration with congressional investigations and subpoenas and scrutinizing Iraq war decisions and spending if they claim one or both chambers in Nov. 7 midterm elections.

"They would have a great time with it, which would be a big distraction," said Charles Black, a longtime GOP strategist with close ties to the White House.

"The control of the House was in play before the Foley thing happened, but this does not help," Black said. "If Democrats were to take the House, that would make it harder to get Bush initiatives through."

The House, with Hastert at the helm, has generally delivered for Bush, even when the Senate has not.

Democrats are believed to have a better shot at winning control of the House than of the Senate, although recent developments have raised Democratic expectations for both chambers.

Despite public expressions of support for Hastert by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, the White House worked to distance itself from the firestorm. "We're not getting into telling the House how to do its business," White House spokesman Tony Snow said Thursday.

Even if Republicans do retain control, it probably would be by reduced margins, increasing the likelihood of gridlock. And even if Hastert doesn't step down — Democrats and some Republicans advocate that he resign as speaker — there now is a huge cloud over his leadership.

Deeply sorry
Hastert on Thursday said he was "deeply sorry this has happened" and took responsibility as the top House leader, but he held fast against calls for him to quit.

White House aides suggest they are doing little to actively prop up Hastert, despite expressions of support from Bush, Cheney and Snow.

Bush said Foley's behavior "disgusted" him — but that he supported Hastert. Cheney said "it makes no sense" for Hastert to step down, predicting that Republicans would retain both chambers of Congress.

2006 key racesStill, in an interview with the Washington Examiner newspaper, Cheney said that if Democrats did seize control, "I don't think we fear investigations."

"I don't think they would get much done, if that's all they've got. And I don't think there's great enthusiasm on the part of the country for that," Cheney added.

Impact on turnout
Republican strategists worried that the scandal could suppress Election Day turnout among the social conservatives that form the GOP base.

"We understand people's real concern about this. I mean, people ought to be concerned. It's a hideous thing," said Snow.

The scandal comes amid growing public opposition to the Iraq war and lagging confidence in GOP leadership.

In an AP-Ipsos poll conducted this week after the Foley revelations surfaced, about half of likely voters said recent disclosures of corruption and scandal in Congress will be very — or extremely — important in their vote next month. Democrats enjoyed a nearly 2-to-1 advantage as the party better able to fight corruption.

Republicans worried the scandal would ripple throughout the electorate, turning voters against GOP incumbents who had nothing to do with it — especially if evidence develops to back up allegations that some Republican leaders knew about Foley's activities months or years ago but failed to act.

Gallows humor?
Republicans pushed for quick action in the congressional and FBI investigations.

At the same time, some gallows humor circulated.

"It took Bob Woodward's book off the front pages," said GOP consultant Rich Galen, referring to the new book by the Washington Post journalist that portrays Bush as intransigent in his defense of the Iraq war and his advisers as bitterly divided.

The page scandal "obviously keeps Republicans from talking about what they want to talk about," said Galen. But he warned against leaping to conclusions that it would automatically translate into Republican losses.

He noted that, in 1998, the situation was reversed and he and other Republicans "were rubbing our hands together in glee every day we had the Democrats talking about Monica (Lewinsky) and Bill (Clinton). And guess what happened?" Republicans suffered midterm election losses.

"We always flirt with danger when trying to predict future events based upon current data," Galen said. "When something flashes this hot, it often can't sustain itself and burns out quickly."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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