Hastert Stands Firm in Face of Foley Scandal

President Bush called House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) Thursday to offer his appreciation for the way Hastert has handled the situation involving former Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL). The call came as Hastert weathered criticism for his handling of the political crisis. Hastert says he will not step down as speaker.

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The House Ethics Committee has now joined those examining the conduct of former Congressman Mark Foley. The committee will investigate Foley's e-mails to underage pages and the actions of House leaders. That includes the speaker, Dennis Hastert, who says he did nothing wrong and will not step down.

Let's begin our coverage with NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Hastert met with reporters outside his congressional district office in Batavia, Illinois. He was by turns defiant and apologetic.

Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Republican, Illinois; Speaker of the House): I'm deeply sorry this has happened. The bottom line is that we're taking responsibility because ultimately, as someone has said in Washington before, the buck stops here.

NAYLOR: Hastert said he plans to run again for speaker if he is reelected to Congress, and his fellow Republican leaders late yesterday issued statements of support. President Bush also called Hastert to thank him for how he has handled the matter, according to the White House. Hastert said he didn't know until last Friday about Foley's salacious instant messages to a former page.

Rep. HASTERT: That's the first time that I heard of the explicit language. When it happened, Republicans acted and the guy's gone.

NAYLOR: In fact, on Friday, Hastert said he was surprised by Foley's sudden resignation, which Foley tendered after being confronted with ABC News, which had copies of the messages.

By all accounts, Republican leaders weren't involved at all. Hastert has come under criticism for not acting more decisively last year when others in the GOP leadership, including Majority Leader John Boehner, say they informed the Speaker that Foley had sent what was termed an overly friendly e-mail to a 16-year-old former page.

Hastert conceded yesterday his office might have mishandled the information.

Rep. HASTERT: Could we have done it better? Could the Page Board have handled it better? In retrospect, probably yes. But at that time, what we knew and what we acted upon was what we had.

NAYLOR: Two of the three members of Congress on the Page Board said they were never told about the e-mail and that only the panel's chairman, Illinois Republican Congressman John Shimkus, was aware of the communication. He says he told Foley to end all contact with the boy.

Hastert says he is looking for what he termed a person of high caliber to advise House leaders on the program. The person he had in mind was former FBI director Louis Freeh. But House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has objected. In the meantime, the House has set up a hotline for anyone wishing to report concerns about Foley.

(Soundbite of congressional hotline recording)

Unidentified Woman: Thank you for calling the tip line for the United States House of Representatives. If you have information regarding Former Congressman Mark Foley and his contacts or communications with any current or former House pages, or any other information or concern about the House page program, please leave your information at the tone.

NAYLOR: The House Ethics Committee is among those interested in information about Foley. They've begun a bipartisan investigation into the matter and have prepared some four dozen subpoenas, according to the panel's chairman, Republican Doc Hastings of Washington.

Representative DOC HASTINGS (Republican, Washington): Many of these individuals we plan to talk to are members, officers and staffs of the House. For that reason, we sincerely hope that most of the subpoenas we authorize today will prove unnecessary. Because we believe that most of these individuals share our desire to get quick and truthful answers to the questions that are being asked by so many Americans.

NAYLOR: Congressman Howard Berman of California, the senior Democrat on the panel, says he expects the investigation will not be a lengthy one.

Rep. HOWARD BERMAN (Democrat, California): In terms of timeframe, we are looking at weeks, not months. I want to re-emphasize the point that the chairman made, that we will go where the evidence takes us.

NAYLOR: Members refused to say whether they've subpoenaed Hastert, but his press secretary says the speaker will of course testify if the committee asks him.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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