October 6, 2006 in Nation/World

GOP rallying around Hastert

Jim Vandehei and Michael Abramowitz Washington Post

WASHINGTON – Republicans are calculating the smartest way to survive the Mark Foley scandal is to rally around House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and hope that no new evidence surfaces before the election showing GOP leaders could have done more to prevent the congressman from preying on young male pages, according to several GOP lawmakers and strategists.

The White House and top House Republicans remain deeply nervous the scandal will hurt them politically, and that additional information will come out in coming days contradicting claims by Hastert and others they were unaware of Foley’s sexual messages to underage boys, the lawmakers and officials said.

For now, however, they said it would be politically disastrous for Republicans to oust Hastert because it would be viewed as akin to a public admission of guilt in the tawdry sex scandal as well as a pre-election victory that would buoy Democrats and help their turnout efforts.

“Calls for resignation are just inappropriate,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas. “I would be absolutely shocked if the facts led us to that he knew more than he says he knew.”

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said every Republican lawmaker is rejecting calls from some conservative leaders to oust Hastert. “You are seeing a rally around the speaker effort more than anything else,” he said.

Several GOP lawmakers in tough races said voters are not reacting as harshly to the sex scandal as they first feared, buying Hastert even more room to save his job. Still, members are privately furious with how Hastert and other leaders have handled the Foley sex scandal and its aftermath. It has created tension among a GOP leadership team that – since House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, took over from former Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas – has not worked together closely and cannot fully trust each other, Republican operatives said. And many anticipate the worst is still to come.

Top advisers to Hastert have accused Boehner of undermining the speaker’s campaign to save his job. They pointed to Boehner’s comments earlier in the week that it was Hastert’s responsibility to fully investigate charges that Foley was making improper contact with underage boys. “That still stings,” said one top adviser, who believed the remark “was pretty close” to an insurrection.

Kevin Madden, a spokesman for Boehner, said his boss was “in no way trying to blame Hastert. It was merely a description” of responsibility for the page program, which the speaker’s office technically oversees.

Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for Hastert, downplayed any tension. “We are all sticking together through this. This has been a tough time for the House Republican majority, and we are going to make it through.”

A top Boehner adviser said the majority leader wanted to make it clear he is not to blame for the leadership’s role in handling the Foley allegation. “This has opened up and made more obvious some managerial problems in the speaker’s office,” the adviser said. Boehner has made it clear to colleagues that he plans to run for speaker if Hastert steps down or for minority leader if Republicans lose the House. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., called the speaker earlier this week to tell him his critical comments about Hastert were taken out of context.

“Those who are trying to create the appearance of disunity between myself and the speaker should know: There is not, and has not been, any daylight between the speaker and me,” Blunt said in a statement Thursday.

Even if some GOP leaders turn on him, Hastert has a very powerful ally in President Bush. White House aides are nervous that controversy has clouded, at least for now, the Bush effort to try to shape the midterm elections around the issue of terrorism. But they are warning against a quick ouster of Hastert.

This posture comes as a sharp contrast to the way the Bush administration handled the controversy over Sen. Trent Lott’s comments about Strom Thurmond – which cost Lott his post as Senate GOP leader in 2002. In Lott’s case, Bush was quick to nudge Lott out of power. Bush, however, feels deeply indebted to Hastert, who has pushed through his agenda and quietly provided advice on how to deal with a restive Republican Congress.

Still, many Republicans accused Hastert of badly bungling the political fallout of the Foley scandal and waiting until Thursday to take responsibility and decisive action to investigate the matter.

“I don’t think anyone has handled this particularly well,” said a top House Republican, who spoke candidly about the situation if his name was not used.

Others complained that Hastert’s blame-the-media-and-Democrats strategy looks odd when it was conservatives who are leading the charge for the speaker’s resignation.

Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Conn., who faces one of the toughest re-election fights in the country, said members will stand by Hastert – until all of the facts are known. “He is not the kind of guy you would think would condone this kind of behavior,” he said. “Calling for someone’s resignation is simply a political stunt if you don’t have all the facts.”

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