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Republican lawmakers seek to defend Hastert, acknowledge leaders' mistakes
WASHINGTON -- Rank-and-file Republicans on Sunday sought to mount a public defense of Speaker Dennis Hastert over the page sex scandal that threatens their congressional control one month before the elections.
But a House GOP leader under fire for his handling of the scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley canceled a national broadcast appearance and one Republican lawmaker said those who participated in a cover-up would have to resign.
"Anybody that hindered this in any kind of way, tried to step in the way of hiding this, covering it up, is going to have to step down. Whoever that is," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va.
The House ethics committee is investigating the matter. If it finds evidence of a cover-up, the punishment could range from a mild rebuke in a committee report to a House vote of censure or expulsion.
Rep. Thomas Reynolds, who heads the House Republicans' re-election effort, would have been the chamber's top GOP official on the Sunday talk shows. Booked weeks ago for ABC's "This Week," he confirmed his appearance on Wednesday. By Saturday, his office canceled without explanation and arranged for a substitute guest, Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., a network spokeswoman said.
A Reynolds spokesman said the New York congressman had flu-like symptoms. Reynolds, whose district covers a stretch of New York between the suburbs of Buffalo and Rochester, is now trailing his Democratic opponent, Jack Davis, by a 48-33 percent margin, according to a poll conducted by Zogby International for The Buffalo News.
Reynolds has been criticized by Democrats who say he did too little to protect a page from Foley, the Florida Republican who resigned Sept. 29 after the disclosure of his sexually explicit electronic messages to teenage former male pages. Foley is now under investigation by federal and Florida authorities.
The scandal has ignited what has become a political firestorm before the Nov. 7 elections, with the Republican majority in the House and Senate in jeopardy.
Putnam, who heads the Republican Policy Committee, sought to make the case that Hastert's office "acted proactively, they acted aggressively, and within hours of the explicit e-mails coming to light, they demanded Foley's resignation."
"The dirty laundry in our conference is gone," he said.
Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., said Democrats should be investigated to see whether they leaked the explicit e-mails to gain a political advantage before the elections, although the lawmaker acknowledged he had no evidence indicating that was the case.
Responded Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.: "I think it's ridiculous. But if I was in a bind, as the Republicans are now, I guess I would be reaching for straws. But it's sad."
Hastert, R-Ill., last week accepted responsibility but resisted pressure to resign over his handling of the scandal.
"There's been a lot of ducking and dodging and diving and weaving," said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill. "There is a lot of fingerpointing that had gone on earlier in the week, but I do think people are behind the speaker now."
Putnam insisted that Democrats will not be able to pick up the 15 seats on Election Day they need to take control of the 435-member House. LaHood was less certain.
"This is going to be the most difficult 30 days in the last 12 years that we've been the majority party," LaHood said. The GOP took power after the 1994 election.
Putnam said voters are more focused on an improving economy as well as Iraq and the fight against terrorism, although the page scandal will have an effect.
"It certainly has put members all across the country in the position of having to answer uncomfortable questions about tawdry deeds by a former colleague," he said.
Because of the scandal, Davis said "there's no oxygen" for issues that are important to people and that's hurting Republicans. He called 30 days an eternity in politics but that "it's a tough lift right now. ... There are so many races in the margins."
Almost half of Americans surveyed in a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll said recent disclosures of corruption and scandal will be extremely or very important to their vote.
Also, more than half of those surveyed in a Newsweek poll released this weekend believe Hastert tried to cover up news of Foley's messages to the pages. This poll gives Democrats the advantage on handling moral values, normally a Republican strong point.
On the day after Foley resigned, Reynolds said he had told Hastert months ago about concerns that Foley had sent inappropriate messages once Reynolds became aware of them.
Hastert since has insisted he was not aware of the charges until more recently. Reynolds, meanwhile, now says he cannot remember exactly when he learned of Foley's e-mails or when he told Hastert about them.
Reynolds began an ad campaign Saturday in which he apologizes for not doing more.
"Nobody's angrier and more disappointed that I didn't catch his lies," Reynolds says. "I trusted that others had investigated. Looking back, more should have been done, and for that, I am sorry."
Putnam was on ABC, McHenry appeared on CNN's "Late Edition," Davis and LaHood were on CBS' "Face the Nation," and McHenry and Rangel were on CNN's "Late Edition."