During a 90-minute crisis conference call earlier this week, House Republicans scattered across the nation mostly pledged support for Speaker Dennis Hastert despite the leadership's clumsiness in recognizing the implications of former Rep. Mark Foley's inappropriate interest in teen-age male pages. Foley has resigned in disgrace and is seeking treatment for alcoholism, but House members and their aides tell TIME that they fear new revelations are coming. On the conference call, a rank-and-file member asked about a report, circulating in the leadership since at least Friday, that Foley had showed up drunk at a page dorm. A House leader said that the alleged visit should be discussed privately because reporters might learn about the call, according to people who were on the call.
Leadership aides expressed relief that members were, at least initially, staying loyal. "The ship didn't go down," one congressional aide said. Trying to quash speculation Hastert might step down under pressure from the Speakership next year if the G.O.P. retains control, his office issued a statement today saying he "will run again and serve his full term" if his colleagues elect him. But now Republicans have a new worry: Key social conservatives have issued blistering statements about the handling of the Foley matter, arguing that political correctness kept G.O.P. leaders from intervening earlier, and are making it clear that they are not giving Hastert and his team the benefit of the doubt. Republican pollsters are warning party officials that enthusiasm among their voters is waning from its already listless levels. And officials say the rebukes from Christian conservatives carry ominous implications for the midterm elections, when the G.O.P. will depend on these voters to turn out and work for the party's candidates. "These are the people you need," one dismayed official said.
The least political of these groups, James Dobson's Focus on the Family, did not take shots at Republican leaders. Its newly created separate lobbying group, Focus on the Family Action, said in a statement that the revulsion from Americans shows that society recognizes "limits to tolerance of our culture's anything-goes view of sexuality." Tom Minnery, the group's senior vice president of government and public policy, used the statement to add that the lurid episode might discredit "the politically correct notion fed to us by those on the left that obscenity is just another form of free speech."
But the Family Research Council, led by Tony Perkins, a frequent guest on television talk shows, went straight at the Republican Party, declaring in a message to supporters that the House leadership could suffer the same disgrace that Catholic leaders did in the priest scandal. "They discounted or downplayed earlier reports concerning Foley's behavior, probably because they did not want to appear 'homophobic,'" Perkins said. "The Foley scandal shows what happens when political correctness is put ahead of protecting children." So no one could miss the message, the headline was: "Pro-Homosexual Political Correctness Sowed Seeds for Foley Scandal."
A similarly blunt broadside is being distributed by the Arlington Group, a coalition of what it calls "pro-family organizations," including such well-known figures as Don Wildmon of the American Family Association, Gary Bauer of American Values and Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation. "We are very concerned that the early warnings of Mr. Foley's odd behavior toward young male pages may have been overlooked or treated with deference, fearing a backlash from the radical gay rights movement because of Mr. Foley's sexual orientation," the group said. "It appears that the integrity of the conservative majority has given way to political correctness." If Republican ground troops are as convinced as their leaders that the party coddled Foley, that conservative majority may find itself in the minority on the morning of Nov. 8.