Hastert may remain House speaker, for now

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON - The top House Republican, under fire for his handling of a Capitol Hill sex scandal, gained support today in his bid to survive the political firestorm over a former congressman's lewd messages to teenage boys, party aides said.

But House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who oversees the congressional intern program at the centre of the scandal, could still be forced out after the November 7 elections, the aides said.

"Looks like right now he will keep his job for a maximum of one and one-half months," said a senior party official, adding that in the meantime Hastert may fire some staffers. Other party aides said it remains unclear how long he will stay.

While Hastert was struggling to keep his job, a federal investigation was under way into former Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley's inappropriate email and messages sent to teenage congressional pages. The House Ethics Committee meets behind closed doors tomorrow to consider its own investigation.

Hastert has denied any knowledge of Foley's overtly sexual internet messages until they were made public at the weekend, but some members said they had told him or his staff months ago about possibly troublesome messages from Foley to interns.

The scandal claimed another victim today with the resignation of the chief of staff to a second politician, Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, who was told months ago of Foley's "over-friendly" email contact with a 16-year-old boy. Kirk Fordham, who had worked for Foley, advised him as the scandal unfolded last week.

"When I sought to help Congressman Foley and his family when his shocking secrets were being revealed, I did so as a friend of my former boss, not as Congressman Reynolds' chief of staff," Fordham said in a statement.

"At the same time, I want it to be perfectly clear that I never attempted to prevent any inquiries or investigation of Foley's conduct by House officials or any other authorities," he said.

Foley resigned at the weekend after ABC News disclosed additional sexually suggestive messages he sent. His lawyer revealed yesterday that Foley had been molested by a clergyman and was gay. He has checked into an alcohol treatment program.

The scandal has rocked the US Congress, and buoyed Democratic hopes they can win back control of the House as well as the Senate in next month's elections.

While the conservative Washington Times newspaper and some conservatives outside Congress have called on Hastert to step down, others, including President George W. Bush, have voiced support for him. Many House Republicans, at least publicly, took a wait-and-see approach.

Today, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the Republican Study Committee that claims about 100 members, and Rep. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, chairman of the party's Values Action Team with about 70 members, issued a joint statement in support of Hastert.

"Regardless of our reservations about how this matter was handled administratively, we believe Speaker Hastert is a man of integrity who has led our conference honourably and effectively throughout the past eight years," the two wrote. "Speaker Dennis Hastert should not resign."

Rep. John Shadegg, a conservative Arizona Republican who unsuccessfully campaigned earlier this year to be House Republican leader, said: "To demand his resignation based on the current facts and before the investigation that he has called for is completed, is unwarranted and wrong."

The US Justice Department, meanwhile, asked the Congress to preserve documents, computers, computer files and electronic files in Foley's office, an official said.

- REUTERS

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