Pols Debate Future of Hastert

"So now we wait and sweat a little."

That was how a senior Republican staffer on Capitol Hill described the difficult position his party was in after the revelations that former Rep. Mark Foley had sent explicit Internet messages to pages and former pages.

Most conversations among GOP members and staffers center on the fate of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who says he will not resign.

The staffer, who did not want to be identified, believes Hastert has done nothing that should force him to step down: "In hindsight, he could have moved more forcefully on Foley, but it's not like he found a smoking gun and did nothing."

As for reports that some senior Republicans want Hastert to remain at his post for now but announce that he will not serve as speaker if the party retains control of the House, the staffer said, "That is the worst possible solution."

"If Hastert is going to go," he said," he should go now, quickly and cleanly. But I don't think he should go."

Hastert seemed to get solid support in a joint statement from two conservatives: Republican Study Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Values Action Team Chairman Joe Pitts, R-Pa.: "Speaker Dennis Hastert should not resign."

But the statement implied that the speaker and his aides should act more forcefully than they have in the past: "We trust that the House leadership will cooperate with law enforcement in this matter. We urge House Leadership to institute more comprehensive protections for House pages."

For many, President Bush's backing Tuesday of Hastert was key: "I know that he wants all the facts to come out, and he wants to ensure that these children up there on Capitol Hill are protected."

But if what the president said was important, so was what he did not say, observers note.

At no point did Bush say flatly that Hastert should remain as speaker. To some observers, the president's tempered endorsement reflects his party's nervousness.

No one knows whether other damaging accusations, possibly including other House GOP members, may surface.

Hastert already faces a difficult enough struggle to keep his job; additional revelations could easily sink him.

Some Republican insiders want the party to switch from defense to offense.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, told ABC News that House Republicans should not let themselves become punching bags.

Norquist has long been an influential adviser to the GOP both on Capitol Hill and at the White House.

He said Republicans should point out that "the Democratic operative who leaked the Internet instant messages to ABC broke the law."

"That operative," he said, "sat on the material for three years before leaking it."

Norquist said that when the identity of the leaker is known, "then the Democrats will be the ones who will suffer" from the Foley fallout.

ABC Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross, who broke the story, denies that his informant was a Democratic operative: "It was from a person not affiliated with either party. … The explicit instant messages came from former pages."

Hastert has been aggressive in defending himself, granting interviews from his home in Illinois.

But there is pressure there, too.

His hometown newspaper, The Aurora Beacon Journal, has asked readers to vote: "Do you think House Speaker Dennis Hastert is doing enough to investigate this unfolding scandal?"

The paper says, "This is a non-scientific poll."

Starting this weekend, though, national polls will take scientific surveys of the damage the Foley scandal has done to the GOP and its hopes for retaining control of both the House and Senate.

Should Republicans find the polls are devastatingly bad news, Hastert may find his situation untenable.

Then we will discover whether Hastert's support in his party is, as a Hill staffer says, "a mile wide but an inch deep."

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