As the Mark Foley congressional page scandal suddenly boosted Democrats' chances of winning control of Congress, Republican U.S. House leaders on Saturday fended off charges that they failed to act months ago on concerns about Foley's behavior.
A day after Foley, a South Florida Republican, resigned from the House amid revelations that he sent sexually explicit instant messages to teenage former congressional pages, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader John Boehner stepped into the explosive controversy.
"No one in the Speaker's Office was made aware of the sexually explicit text messages ... until they were revealed in the press and on the Internet this week,'' the Speaker's Office said in a statement.
The Speaker's Office acknowledged it had been alerted to one "over-friendly" e-mail exchange Foley had with a 16-year-old page. The statement said the House clerk and the Republican congressman overseeing the page program told Foley "to immediately cease any communication with the young man."
Underscoring the volatile nature of the scandal, Hastert, Boehner and Majority Whip Roy Blunt late Saturday night promised a "full review" of the matter and creation of a toll-free number for pages, parents and others to confidentially report "incidents of concern." They also called for a criminal inquiry.
As Democrats sought to tie GOP congressional leaders to the Foley scandal, their party jumped a big step closer to winning back control of the House. Foley's South Florida congressional seat had long been deemed safe for Republicans, but now it's anything but.
"It would have been an easy win and now it's going to be a hard win,'' Palm Beach County GOP chairman Sid Dinerstein said of the district that President Bush comfortably won with 55 percent of the vote in the last election. "There will be voters who quite understandably will say, 'I'm taking a pass on the Republican Party this time.' ''
To make matters still more challenging for Republicans, Foley's name will remain on the ballot. Votes cast for Foley will go toward a replacement candidate expected to be named Monday by state Republican leaders.
The name most often mentioned by Republican activists is state Rep. Joe Negron of Stuart, though others include Reps. Gayle Harrell of Port St. Lucie, Paige Kreegel of Punta Gorda and Carl Domino of Jupiter, as well as Pittsburgh Steelers heir Tom Rooney of Jupiter, and Palm Beach Gardens City Councilman Hal Valache.
The Democrats have a credible candidate, wealthy businessman Tim Mahoney, making his first run for office, and in a matter of hours he was elevated to frontrunner.
"In the past 48 hours, the 16th Congressional District has been in the eye of a hurricane," Mahoney said at a quick campaign appearance with John Kerry on Saturday. "It's now clear from all of the reports coming in from across the country that the Republican leadership team has been well aware of this problem with the pages for well over a year."
A new Washington scandal and newly vulnerable GOP congressional race is the last thing Republicans need as they struggle to maintain their majority in the House. They are confronted by an unpopular president, an unpopular war and public disenchantment about congressional ethics scandals.
Democrats need to pick up 15 seats to win a majority in the House, and at the very least national Republicans will have to pump money into a race that they could have otherwise used to help vulnerable incumbents elsewhere.
Congressional District 16, a sprawling district that extends from West Palm Beach and Port St. Lucie on the east coast to Port Charlotte on the west coast, is a strongly Republican district, but Republicans have an enormous task. In barely over a month, they must raise big money, introduce a new candidate, counteract the taint of scandal, and educate voters that a ballot cast for Foley is really a vote for someone else.
"It's going to hurt Republicans considerably. It would be impossible for it not to,'' said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "Psychologically, people are not going to want to pull a lever for Mark Foley, even if it's not really for Mark Foley."
Two years ago, Democratic consultant Robin Rorapaugh made a token run as the alternative to a Democrat who dropped out of the race late in a neighboring congressional district. Elections offices posted signs at precincts to explain.
"The Republicans have a lot to do in a very, very short time. It can be done, but it's going to be very tough,'' Rorapaugh said Saturday. "And they're going to be taking money from other close races to hold this seat.''
Meanwhile, Democrats are casting the Foley scandal as an indictment on Republican congressional leaders, accusing them of failing to act on red flags brought to their attention long ago. The Democratic National Committee on Saturday questioned whether the Republican Party's congressional campaign committee attempted to "cover up'' the scandal by failing to do more when it learned of questionable e-mails from Foley to one former page.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, characterized the Foley resignation as another "symptom of a pattern" of corruption that has marked Republican-controlled Congress.
"To know that the children in the congressional page program, that were in our care, were subjected to this type of inappropriate, appalling contact is just outrageous," she said. "Republican leadership knew about this over a year ago and kept it a secret in order to protect and preserve their political lives instead of protecting the lives in the congressional page program."
But Republicans stress they never knew anything about sexually explicit e-mails from Foley, who chaired the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children.
In November, the St. Petersburg Times contacted U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-La., after obtaining a series of e-mails from Foley to one of Alexander's former pages. In one of the e-mails, Foley had requested the page's photo, and the page forwarded the e-mails to an Alexander staffer asking if he was right to see it as "sick, sick, sick, sick."
Foley told the Times it was an innocent exchange, and Alexander told the Times in November he was unaware of the matter until the newspaper called. The Times never published a story, and never saw sexually explicit e-mails from Foley.
The "internal review" released by Hastert on Saturday says in fall 2005, Alexander's chief of staff contacted the Speaker's Office about Foley's e-mail exchange and that Alexander was concerned about it. The speaker's deputy chief of staff and in-house counsel told Alexander's aide to contact the House clerk, who oversees the page program.
Hastert's office said Alexander's office declined to show the e-mails to the clerk, "citing the fact that the (page's) family wished to maintain as much privacy as possible and simply wanted the contact to stop." The clerk asked if the e-mail exchange was of a sexual nature and was assured it was not. Alexander's chief of staff characterized the e-mail exchange as "over-friendly."
The clerk and the congressman leading the House Page Board, Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, talked to Foley.
"My evaluation was there's no smoking gun here," Shimkus told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "At the time, that e-mail had no significance ... other than, 'Mark, stay away from this kid, this doesn't look good.' "
New York Rep. Tom Reynolds, who's leading the Republican congressional campaign effort, said in a statement Friday that Alexander told him about the Foley e-mails, that he mentioned the matter to Hastert, and that the clerk and Shimkus conducted an investigation on behalf of the House Page Board.
A Democratic member of the page board, Rep. Dale Kildee of Michigan, said Saturday he was never informed of the e-mails and the board never conducted an investigation.
Hastert said he didn't recall Alexander telling him about Foley e-mails, but did not dispute it happened. The Speaker's Office stressed that it never learned of the sexual instant messages that sunk Foley's career until this week.
"The improper communications between Congressman Mark Foley and former House congressional pages is unacceptable and abhorrent,'' said the statement from the House GOP leadership. "It is an obscene breach of trust. His immediate resignation must now be followed by the full weight of the criminal justice system."
Staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8241.