Will the Foley Scandal Bring Down Hastert?

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Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert speaks to reporters about Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) in the Capitol in Washington October 2, 2006.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert rose to power because of a sex scandal, and now another one eight years later is threatening to take him down. The controversy around former Florida Rep. Mark Foley, who resigned last Friday after e-mails and instant messages that showed him making inappropriate and at times lurid comments to Capitol Hill pages, has now shifted to the questions that have defined every Washington scandal since Watergate: which higher-ups knew, when they knew it, and whether there was a cover-up. Hastert, as the leader of the Republicans in the House, is getting the closest scrutiny, and one influential conservative outlet, the Washington Times, has called for his resignation. "Either he was grossly negligent for not taking the red flags fully into account and ordering a swift investigation, for not even remembering the order of events leading up to last week's revelations," the paper wrote, "or he deliberately looked the other way in hopes that a brewing scandal would simply blow away."

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Instead, the scandal appears to be deepening. Hastert has turned to Page 1 of the Washington playbook: He has called for an investigation, a move applauded by President Bush. "I fully support Speaker Hastert's call for an investigation by law enforcement into this matter. This investigation should be thorough and any violations of law should be prosecuted," the President said at a stop at a California elementary school that had been named for him. "Now, I know Denny Hastert, I meet with him a lot. He is a father, teacher, coach, who cares about the children of this country. I know that he wants all the facts to come out and he wants to ensure that these children up there on Capitol Hill are protected. I'm confident he will provide whatever leadership he can to law enforcement in this investigation."

But voters may not share Bush's confidence — especially given how often investigations in recent years have become a tool by which politicians kick their problems into the next election cycle. Nor will the announcement that the House Ethics Committee is looking into the matter reduce the pressure. The panel has, for all intents and purposes, been nonfunctional since it imploded over the investigation of then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Foley, meanwhile, was spinning a new narrrative — and legal defense — around his actions. After the congressman had first blamed his actions on alcohol, his attorney on Tuesday claimed Foley had been molested by a clergyman when he was between the ages of 13 and 15.

Other House Republicans are shifting blame upwards, and Hastert is as far up as they can go. Asked by reporters in his home district in New York whether the Speaker should have done more, Tom Reynolds, the Republican leader who runs the National Republican Congressional Committee, replied: "That's a question you'll have to ask the Speaker." House Majority Leader John Boehner said in a radio interview: "I believe I talked to the Speaker, and he told me it had been taken care of. And my position is, it's in his corner, it's his responsibility. The Clerk of the House who runs the page program, the Page Board — all report to the Speaker. And I believe it had been dealt with." Roy Blunt, the third-ranking GOP leader on Capitol Hill, used a conference call with members Monday to declare he did not know about the e-mails. There was open debate on that call about whether GOP members should have contacted the Justice Department to look into the e-mails before they surfaced in the press. "People are running scared," one House Republican told TIME. "It just becomes Exhibit 10 or 12 about our inability to govern effectively."

No member of Congress has yet called for Hastert's resignation, though Republican Chris Shays of Connecticut came close, saying "if they knew or should have known the extent of this problem, they should not serve in leadership." Hastert's office has said he won't resign, and he's made a series of moves to reassure Republicans he's in control of the scandals — such setting up a toll-free number for people to call with any similar problems in the page program, and holding a press conference Monday to stress that he had not seen the more salacious instant messages when the scandal broke last Friday.

Hastert has one advantage in the fight to keep his job: most of his House colleagues like the former wrestling coach. His affable personality got him the job in the first place. After Newt Gingrich stepped down in 1998 and Louisiana Congressman Bob Livington withdrew after revelations about his marital infidelities, Hastert was plucked out of obscurity to take the reins of the House.

Hastert has become a tight ally of President Bush. But he hasn't had a good two years. Many Republicans think he stuck by former House Majority Leader Tom Delay for too long , leaving the party mired in a distracting fundraising scandal. And many Republicans thought his coming to the side of Democrat William Jefferson, whose office was raided by federal investigators pursuing a bribery case, was a colossal blunder. The Foley affair will be a test of how much faith Republicans have in their leader — and whether he can get the story off the front pages.

One tactic Hastert and other GOP leaders are taking is to try to spread the blame around. Boehner, in a letter to the editor in the Washington Times, said: "We also need to know why these messages surfaced only last week, on the final day of legislative business before the November elections. If this evidence was withheld for political purposes, one can only speculate as to how many additional children may have been endangered before this information was finally revealed." So far, there's no evidence Democrats had the instant messages or withheld them until now, but Republicans are eagerly offering this theory to cast doubt. That effort might be crucial for both Republicans electoral prospects and Hastert's job security.

—With reporting by Karen Tumulty