House Speaker Hastert In a Hot Spot

Oct. 4, 2006 — -- On the defensive, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., took to friendly conservative airwaves -- Rush Limbaugh, Hugh Hewitt, Sean Hannity -- to defend himself amidst criticism that his office hadn't done enough after being notified in 2005 of some of the inappropriate e-mails former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., had sent to an underage former congressional page.

On "The Rush Limbaugh Show," Hastert painted this uproar as a liberal conspiracy to win back the House of Representatives.

"If they get to me, it looks like they could affect our election as well," Hastert said.

Hastert went on to tell Limbaugh's listeners -- and other audiences -- that he and the GOP leadership had facilitated Foley's resignation.

"We took care of Mr. Foley," Hastert said. "We found out about it, asked him to resign. He did resign. He's gone."

That wasn't true.

Foley resigned before anyone in leadership could speak to him.

Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean later told ABC News that the speaker had "misspoke" because he had been under the mistaken impression that someone in leadership had advised Foley to resign.

From One Embattled Republican to Another

Hastert had had a grueling day.

On Tuesday, the conservative Washington Times newspaper called for Hastert's resignation, saying he was either "grossly negligent for not taking the red flags fully into account and ordering a swift investigation … or he deliberately looked the other way."

Hastert's own lieutenants have clearly distanced themselves from how their boss handled the Foley e-mails.

"I did what most people would do in a workplace," Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee told reporters Monday night back in his upstate New York district, where he is in a tough re-election contest. "I heard something, I took it to my supervisor. … I took it to the speaker of the House."

Reynolds will be joined today by first lady Laura Bush at a fundraiser. Reynolds so far has not returned a Foley contribution of $100,000 to his campaign.

Echoing Reynold's defense, House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, told a Cincinnati radio station today that "I believe I talked to the speaker and he told me it had been taken care of. And my position is it's in his corner, it's his responsibility."

Speaking publicly for the first time about the Foley scandal, President Bush said he was dismayed, shocked and disgusted by Foley's behavior, but he obviously felt the need to express "full support" for Hastert as well.

"I know Denny Hastert," Bush said. "I meet with him a lot. He's a father, teacher, coach. He cares about the children of this country."

'If We Lose': Hastert's Warning

While some rallied around the speaker, ABC News asked several conservative Republican congressmen about their position on whether Hastert should stay on, and was told they wanted to wait a couple days and see how the story played out before making a decision.

Hastert clearly has some ardent supporters on the airwaves, such as Limbaugh who alleged "what the Democrats are doing here in some sort of cooperation with some in the media is to suppress conservative turnout."

Hastert told Limbaugh that the House leadership was working hard to make the page program safer, "but the fact is, we hit the high time of Wall Street today. The economy is good because we've done the right things on holding taxes down, on holding litigation down, holding regulation down."

Hastert warned that "if we lose this election, if this goes back over to the Democrats, it'll come back in spades. … You'll see higher taxes. You'll see more litigation. You'll see more regulation. That's what they're all about -- and we won't have this economy. We worked to protect this country against terrorism, passed legislation to do that. We've had to fight guys like [the Democratic senator from Vermont, Patrick] Leahy every day to make this thing happen, but we've done it."

Conservative Criticism

But while Democrats were on the attack, some influential conservative activists were also voicing outrage.

"There needs to be a full investigation," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. "What did the leadership know? When did they know it?"

Perkins said the Foley incident would indubitably affect the midterm elections.

"I think the bigger question is how hard will those core social conservatives work for various candidates going into the November elections," he said. "Few people would not say that this has taken the wind out of that sails of social conservatives."

David Bossie, president of the 300,000-member conservative group Citizens United, called for Hastert to step down.

"It goes to putting power and politics and friendship ahead of what is right," Bossie said.

J.C. Watts, a former member of the House Republican leadership, says he would not be surprised if conservative voters stayed home to protest what they perceive as the culture of Congress -- and its lack of accountability.

"For Republicans, for four or five weeks there we had gone from awful to bad and over the last three or four days we are back in the awful category," Watts said. "It's damaging. I think it's very damaging."

He said the leadership of the House -- Democrat and Republican - needed to take a long hard look at itself.

"They've become more concerned about leading each other in Washington as opposed to being a leader for the people back home concerning issues of the day," Watts said.

Cullen Dirner and Lisa Chin contributed to this report.

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