WASHINGTON, March 9, 2010 -- The White House today dismissed comments from a retiring Democratic congressman who claimed his own party had hounded him out of office because he had planned to vote against President Obama's health care bill.
Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., announced his resignation last week amid allegations that he sexually harassed two male aides. The congressman first said he was stepping down because his cancer had returned, but then shifted his story, suggesting in a radio interview that he was being forced out of Congress as part of a "setup" involving the White House.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs today called the charges "ridiculous."
"I think this whole story is ridiculous. I think the latest excuse is silly and ridiculous," Gibbs said on "Good Morning America" today. "We're focused not on crazy allegations but instead on making this system work for the American people rather than insurance companies."
Democrats on Capitol Hill said Massa's allegations were absurd.
"That's absurd. That's untrue," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters today.
The House Ethics Committee launched an investigation into Massa's conduct at a New Year's Eve wedding party last year during which he admittedly acted inappropriately toward a staffer.
Gibbs pointed to Massa's shifting language since last week, and said, "I think clearly his actions appear to be in the appropriate venue in the Ethics Committee to look at."
Massa may be stepping down from Congress today, but he has said he would not "go quietly." He put on his political boxing gloves Monday in a lengthy, rambling monologue on a small, upstate New York radio station, where he declared himself guilty of making inappropriate comments to a staff member but said he was "set up" by Democrats.
In a manifestation of his promise not to go quietly, Massa will appear today on CNN's Larry King Live and on Glenn Beck's show.
In his radio address, Massa touched on everything from walking in on a Navy stateroom roommate masturbating to an encounter with a naked White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in the House gym.
"I am sitting here showering, naked as a jay bird, and here comes Rahm Emanuel not even with a towel wrapped around his tush, poking his finger in my chest yelling at me because I wasn't going to vote for the president's budget. Do you know how awkward it is to have a political argument with a naked man?" Massa said. "It's ridiculous."
There has been much speculation about tensions between Obama and Emanuel, but Gibbs dismissed the reports.
"The president has confidence in each and every person that works here," Gibbs said today. "The president is not focused on palace intrigue. ... He wants us to focus on getting something done for the American people, getting health care reform through Congress, focusing on the economy and getting jobs coming back here to this country."
Will Eric Massa Distract From Health Care?
Many Democrats worry that Massa's allegations and the ongoing debate about health care overhaul will hurt the party's chances in the November mid-term elections.
Polls show that even though a majority of Americans want health care reform, they do not like the Democrats' health care bills. The momentum has shifted for Republicans in many parts of the country, including in Massachusetts where Republican Sen. Scott Brown won the election for the seat held by the late Ted Kennedy.
Despite the thorny issues, the White House expressed confidence about Democrats' prospects in 2010.
"I don't think it [health care] is going to cost Democrats the House," Gibbs said. "I think this will be an accomplishment that members can be proud of, not just in this election but for decades to come.
"I think the president understands that good policy always makes for ultimately good politics," Gibbs said. "His focus is on getting something done so that we can make sure that small businesses and families aren't struggling with the high costs of health insurance that goes up each and every year. ... He's going to lead this fight to get this done over the next couple of weeks and it will be something the Democrats will be proud to run on in November."
Obama tried to fire up Americans Monday at a speech in Pennsylvania.
In full campaign mode, the president aimed his closing argument squarely at fellow Democrats, some of whom fear health care overhaul is too unpopular to take on in an election year.
"They've argued, 'Now is not the time for reform. It's going to hurt your poll numbers. How's it going to affect Democrats in November? Don't do it now.' My question to them is, 'When's the right time?' If not now, when? If not us, who?" Obama said to applause.
One contentious issue that Democrats still need to iron out is that of abortion. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who crafted the language in the House bill with much more stringent regulations for curbing federal funding for abortions, said last week that he will not vote for a health care bill that does not include his amendment. The Senate health care bill that the president used as a base for his proposals does not include Stupak's language.
Gibbs today said the president is willing to work with lawmakers on the issue but that the health care bill is not about abortion.
"This is not a bill about abortion, this is about health care reform," Gibbs said. "I think there's no doubt that we can come to a solution that maintains the rules that are in place."
ABC News' Jonathan Karl and Kristina Wong contributed to this report.