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US House Speaker on Defensive as Probe of Congressional Scandal Broadens


Majority Republicans in the House of Representatives have moved to prevent further damage from the scandal involving a former Republican congressman, Mark Foley, who resigned amid revelations he sent sexually explicit e-mails to teenage congressional pages. A congressional ethics panel announced its own investigation, coinciding with a federal probe, as opposition Democrats responded to comments by the Republican House Speaker, who has refused to resign over the matter.

With Republicans desperate to prevent more damage to their efforts to keep control of Congress in the November legislative election, Speaker Dennis Hastert has been under strong pressure to resign.

He had issued sometimes conflicting accounts of when he first became aware of the behavior of former Congressman Foley, and steps he took to stop the lawmaker's actions.

Speaking in his home state of Illinois Thursday, Hastert expressed regret over the Foley scandal but said he had no intention of resigning. "I am deeply sorry that this has happened. And the bottom line is that we are taking responsibility because ultimately, as someone has said in Washington before, the buck stops here," he said.

Hastert, some other Republicans and conservative commentators have alleged that Democratic party organizations were behind revelations of e-mails and Internet "Instant Messages" the former lawmaker sent to male teenage congressional pages.

He says he was merely reflecting what he was hearing or seeing in media reports about what he called people who leaked the e-mails.

Republicans, Hastert says, acted "immediately" after learning about e-mail and other messages Foley sent. He said he learned about what he calls the most explicit e-mails only last week. "I, first of all, learned of this last Friday, when we were about to leave Congress for, you know, the break to go out and campaign," he said.

That again appeared to contradict a former longtime congressional staffer, Kirk Fordham, who resigned Wednesday, insisting he informed Hastert's staff "at the highest level" before 2005 about Foley's behavior.

Fordham is now talking with the F.B.I. about what he knows, and his attorney, Timothy Heaphy, had this statement: "Kirk continues to believe strongly that all the facts need to come out first to investigators, and he will continue to be completely forthcoming, but because there is an ongoing investigation he can't comment any farther."

At the White House, presidential spokesman Tony Snow fielded numerous questions from reporters, and sought to deflect questions about the possible impact of the scandal on Republican chances in the November congressional election. "Anybody who gets up here and tries to make grand predictions about what an event is going to mean in an election that is more than a month away is absolutely certain to be wrong and also be guilty of committing folly from the podium," he said.

Hastert had been under intense pressure from conservatives in the Republican party to step down, although others continued to voice support for him.

Former conservative Republican lawmaker Vin Weber told C-SPAN television Republicans have to unite and reorganize. "They [Republicans] desperately have to come together. I mean we are essentially right now sort of running around like chickens with our heads cut off one month before the election," he said.

Hastert told reporters he intends to run for re-election next year as the Republican Speaker if his party retains control of the House.

A House committee overseeing the conduct of lawmakers announced its own investigation. Congressman Doc Hastings detailed plans to make full use of powers to subpoena and discipline members of Congress. "The American people, and especially the parents of all current and former pages, are entitled to know how this situation was handled, and we are determined to answer their questions," he said.

Congressman Howard Berman, the panel's ranking Democrat, says politics should be kept out of the inquiry. "We all have strong partisan feelings, we have passionate concerns about issues, we have ideological and philosophical differences, but on this committee and for purposes of this investigation, we are going to put those partisan considerations totally aside," he said.

But partisan battles continue. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi welcomed the House inquiry, but again portrayed Republicans as having tried to cover up the Foley matter.

Earlier reports that a former director of the F.B.I., Louis Freeh, would be called upon to conduct an investigation of the congressional page program proved premature, with Hastert telling reporters lawmakers are still seeking "a person of high caliber" for that role.

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