It’s not clear yet if House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert will relinquish his gavel in the coming days in the wake of the Mark Foley cyberspace sex scandal.
“Denny is reaching out to everyone he can reach out to,” his former spokesman, John Feehery, told me on Wednesday. “I just don’t know how the story plays out, how much oxygen is out there.”
If Hastert survives the short term — and if the GOP keeps the House in the midterm elections — then the next question is whether Hastert will be retained as speaker next January for the 110th Congress.
At the moment, and this could change, it seems highly unlikely. Hastert could well be in the last months of his speakership.
Wednesday’s revelation by ABC News — from a freshly resigned House staffer — that Hastert and chief of staff Scott Palmer were warned of Foley’s inordinate interest in pages in 2003 — not late 2005, as Hastert has said — only raises more questions about who knew what when.
ABC reported Wednesday night that Kirk Fordham, who resigned Wednesday as chief of staff to Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), the boss of the GOP House campaign committee, warned Palmer about Foley. Hastert’s spokesman disputes Fordham. Fordham was in a position to know — he was a former Foley chief of staff.
(UPDATE SINCE FILING FOR PRINT EDITION: Palmer said in a statement “What Kirk Fordham said did not happen.”)
Hastert, a Plano Republican, has said he is not quitting. That comes as the Democrats have already been making him an issue in some contests and several in his own conservative base are calling him out.
The speaker comes from the same school of politics as his Texas friend, former Rep. Tom DeLay, who was majority leader. DeLay, fighting corruption charges, was demonized by Democrats. Realizing he was a liability who might bring down other Republicans, DeLay resigned. Hastert will not want Nov. 7 to be a referendum on his leadership.
Just a week ago today, at a breakfast for his leadership fund named KOMPAC (Keep Our Majority political action committee), Hastert and his deputy chief of staff Mike Stokke were upbeat.
It was the day before Brian Ross at ABC News broke the Foley story.
Over eggs at the American Truckers Association, Hastert predicted the GOP would maintain a majority after the November elections. Hastert told the assembled lobbyist-donors he had visited some 40 House districts in August and he had another 31 visits or so penciled in his schedule for October. For years, Hastert has been a tireless fund-raiser for House Republicans. Unlike some controversial major political figures, Hastert’s team was proud that Hastert — genial and non-polarizing — could be a welcome headliner in any district in the country.
One benchmark to watch is whether Hastert remains a draw on the fund-raising circuit. Rep. Ron Lewis (R-Ky.) canceled a Tuesday fund-raiser with the speaker in Kentucky. More of Hastert’s events may be scratched.
It’s ironic. A sex scandal vaulted Hastert into the speakership. Another sex scandal may bring him down.
Hastert is the longest-serving GOP House speaker, in the chair since Jan. 6, 1999. He was picked after speaker-designate Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) suddenly resigned in the wake of an extramarital affair becoming public.
At the least, the Foley episode showed a Hastert operation that at the end of last year was off its game. During a Tuesday interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity, Hastert himself painted a portrait of an office that was overwhelmed by events.
“You have to understand all this went down last November. We had the hurricane issue. We were trying to do deficit reduction. We had the Tom DeLay issue going on,” Hastert told Hannity.
The long-dormant House ethics panel awakes this morning to investigate the Foley matter. The 10-member committee, divided between Democrats and Republicans — including Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) — will decide how to proceed.
They will have subpoena power, and although they will no longer have any ability to sanction Foley, he could be asked to testify.
Hastert shelved thoughts of retirement to stay on the job at the urging of the Bush White House, which wanted Hastert at the helm for President Bush’s second term.
The globetrotting Hastert put his ambassadorial ambitions on hold. Before the Foley scandal, Hastert signaled this term, assuming re-election, will be his last. Hastert’s run as speaker may end sooner than he planned.