Tuesday, October 03, 2006

House Republicans grapple with sex scandal

House Republicans grapple with sex scandal
By John Whitesides, Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - House of Representatives Republican leaders, already facing a tough election fight to keep control of the U.S. Congress, struggled on Monday to contain a mushrooming sex scandal just five weeks before the November 7 vote.

Former Republican Rep. Mark Foley, under FBI investigation for sending sexually explicit Internet messages to underage male congressional pages, reportedly checked into an alcohol rehabilitation facility over the weekend after resigning from Congress on Friday.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, responding to questions about what and when Republican leaders learned about the scandal, strongly denied knowing the explicit sexual nature of Foley's messages until they surfaced on Friday.

"No one in the Republican leadership ... saw those messages until last Friday when ABC News released them to the public," Hastert told reporters at the Capitol.

Hastert and other top House Republicans said over the weekend they knew of e-mail traffic between Foley and a 16-year-old boy, which was described to them as "over-friendly," but were not made aware of the explicit nature of messages sent to other pages.

Some members of both parties suggested any congressional leader who knew about the content of the messages and failed to take action should step down.

"Congressman Foley duped a lot of people," Hastert said. "He deceived me too."

The scandal put Republicans on the defensive in the final month of a close election campaign, with Democrats looking to pick up the 15 House seats and six Senate seats needed to regain control of each chamber.

President George W. Bush and the White House tried to stay above the fray. "The House has to clean up the mess, to the extent there is a mess," White House spokesman Tony Snow said.

Foley, a six-term veteran and chairman of the House caucus on missing and exploited children, resigned after the sexually explicit messages to current and former congressional pages were made public.

The FBI, Florida state investigators and House ethics investigators are all looking into Foley's communications with pages, who are teenagers assigned to answer telephones, deliver documents and run other errands for members of Congress.

Florida Republicans on Monday picked state Rep. Joe Negron to replace Foley in the November House race against Democrat Tim Mahoney, but it was too late to take Foley's name off the ballot. Negron will serve in Congress if Foley wins the most votes, state officials said.

The scandal not only created a ripe takeover target in Foley's previously safe Florida district for Democrats, but gave them renewed ammunition for charges that congressional Republicans have abused their power.

"This leadership, which has been so terribly wrong on so many policies, now seems willing to cover up events to protect its members," said Dianne Farrell, a Democrat challenging Republican Rep. Christopher Shays in Connecticut in one of the country's top races.

Democrats questioned traditional Republican claims to be protectors of family values.

"As a citizen and a voter, I am mortified by this latest turn of events. As someone running for Congress, I believe it is yet another reminder that we need to restore honor and dignity to the House," said Democrat Lois Murphy, who is challenging Republican Rep. James Gerlach in Pennsylvania in another top race.

The scandal erupted just as Bush's approval ratings were starting to climb slightly and Republicans felt more hopeful about retaining congressional majorities.

"Just as the Republicans were beginning to feel a little more confident, this happens," said Cal Jillson, a political analyst at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. "It could remind voters of why they were dissatisfied with Republican control of Congress to begin with."

CNN quoted Foley's lawyer as confirming the authenticity of a letter sent a Florida television on Sunday saying he was checking into a rehabilitation facility for "alcohol and emotional difficulties."