Facing a firestorm of criticism in the unfolding House page scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), House Republican leaders held a tense Members-only conference call Monday evening to attempt to assuage lawmakers’ anger about a controversy that some Republicans fear has put the majority increasingly in peril.
Sources familiar with the call described Members as “angry” and “furious,” and said many lawmakers raised safety concerns about the teenagers currently enrolled in the page program.
“It’s big, it’s devastating, it’s goes back to the idea that Washington, [D.C.,] is an immoral city,” said one source familiar with the call.
Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), the sources said, went so far as to call for scrapping the House page program, which has been in place for more than 150 years. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) also called for the House to hold hearings on the matter, but that suggestion was not widely supported.
Unconfirmed rumors continue to swirl around Foley, who has checked into a rehabilitation facility for alcohol abuse.
House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), mindful of press leaks, warned Members on the call not to discuss unconfirmed allegations on the conference call, but rather to contact leadership offices directly with those concerns.
The conference call came as Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and his aides wrestled with pressure that is perhaps unprecedented in his tenure, as divisions revealed themselves in leadership over the weekend.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) stated publicly that he discussed the series of non-sexual e-mail exchanges in 2005 between Foley and a 16-year-old male former page from Louisiana with the Speaker earlier this year.
Hastert does not deny the conversation took place but maintains he does not recall it, and the different accounts from the two leaders was widely noted.
“The atmosphere was foul over the weekend,” said a GOP strategist close to the leadership. “People were pissed. I think the Speaker heard that and came back pretty quickly to the Capitol. The problem is that the rumor was the leadership was at each other’s throats. ... The biggest problem was that they didn’t all get their stories straight. Now they’re all getting their stories straight, which is important.”
Reynolds was not on the conference call Monday with the rest of the leadership team, though he was scheduled to have a press conference Monday night in Buffalo, N.Y., to reiterate the statement he made over the weekend about his knowledge of the Foley affair.
Leaders are furiously working to separate themselves from a series of sexually explicit online communications between Foley and an unknown number of former House pages, which were first publicly revealed last week.
Sources on Monday’s conference call said Members supported the leaders’ position that there was no prior knowledge of any inappropriate contact between Foley and minors.
Senior members of Hastert’s staff, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), a co-chair of the House Page Board, and then-Clerk of the House Jeff Trandahl led a quiet inquiry into a 2005 e-mail exchange between Foley and the Louisiana page that was dubbed only as “over-friendly” but did result in Foley being advised to end communication with the boy at the request of his parents.
Hastert sought to separate himself from Foley, telling reporters Monday that he recalls little communication between himself and Foley, who was first elected in 1994.
“I’ve never had a [personal] conversation with him,” Hastert said, “Other than his vote on a tariff matter at one time or another, I think.”
Hastert returned to Capitol Hill on Monday to reiterate his commitment to a thorough investigation into Foley’s activities and a review of the House page program.
The normally media-averse Speaker spent much of Monday interacting with the press to continue pushing his position that no member of Republican leadership was aware of sexually explicit online communications Foley had with an unknown number of former House pages.
“The instant messages, reportedly between Congressman Foley and a former page sent in 2003, are vile and repulsive to me, and to my colleagues,” Hastert said, “No one in the Republican leadership, nor Congressman Shimkus, saw those messages until last Friday when ABC News released them to the public.”
Hastert also has committed the House to full cooperation with any and all investigations.
The events of the past week have capped what has been a rocky 109th Congress for Hastert.
While he appears to maintain broad support in the Conference, he and his senior aides increasingly have become the target of behind-the-scenes criticism from rank-and-file Members and aides.
At the kickoff of the 109th Congress, Hastert’s staff counsel Ted Van Der Meid was the chief architect of a series of partisan rules changes imposed on the House ethics committee following the admonishments of then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
The new rules deadlocked the panel for several months prompting fierce partisan gridlock on the panel until Hastert relented and the House reverted to the old rules.
Hastert was also criticized by DeLay’s detractors for not having the foresight to urge DeLay to remove himself from leadership as his ethical troubles worsened and overwhelmed the House majority late last year.
When DeLay stepped down as Majority Leader on Sept. 28, 2005, Hastert was also caught off-guard when his intention to install House Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) as temporary Majority Leader was thwarted by the Conference and resulted in a clumsy scenario under which Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) was given the title and Dreier was given a greater role in leadership decisions.
Hastert also was forceful in January 2006 in committing the House to passing a comprehensive lobbying and ethics reform bill in the wake of DeLay’s retirement announcement and the expanding scandal surrounding disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
The bill never became law despite repeated commitments from leaders, and the House succeeded only in passing smaller rules changes to ban former Members who are lobbyists from the House floor, and to require greater disclosure of earmarks in conference reports.
Hastert also came under fire in May when he and other Congressional leaders took on the Justice Department for what they then described as an unconstitutional raid of Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-La.) Congressional office. Jefferson is the target of a federal criminal probe.
While there was bipartisan agreement that the raid raised constitutional issues regarding constitutional Speech or Debate Clause protections provided to Members of Congress, Hastert and his senior aides were criticized for their handling of the matter and for creating the appearance that they sought to protect a Member of Congress from an investigation.
Congressional leaders filed a brief in support of Jefferson’s request to have the materials returned to his office on the grounds they were obtained unconstitutionally — the appeal was struck down in court.
While Hastert has said publicly he will stand for re-election for Speaker next year, he has not similarly committed to serving for the full length of the Congress if elected.
In recent weeks, House Republicans have suggested that doubt has increased as to whether Hastert, who has diabetes and has been hospitalized several times for treatment of kidney stones and other health issues, will serve out the full Congress.
If Republicans lose the majority, Hastert is widely expected to leave the House, although he has never said so publicly.
The full repercussions of the Foley scandal have yet to play out, as well as the extent to which it could damage Hastert’s standing in the House. While other Congressional leaders are elected only by their party colleagues, the Speaker must be elected by the full chamber.
If Republicans maintain the majority by similar or smaller margins, it would only take the opposition of a handful of Members against Hastert to potentially threaten his hold on the Speakership.
Leadership elections are scheduled for Nov. 15. The Speaker formally will be elected by the full House on the first day of the new session in January.