WASHINGTON—House Speaker Dennis Hastert and the House ethics committee moved Thursday to contain political damage from the congressional page scandal, mixing words of contrition with promises to complete a bipartisan ethics investigation within weeks.
Hastert made it clear that he wouldn't resign.
Republican ranks appeared to be firming behind him after days of second-guessing and finger-pointing over whether he and other leaders in the House of Representatives had acted quickly and responsibly enough after learning that former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., had exchanged inappropriate emails with teenage congressional pages. Foley resigned last week.
Barring explosive new revelations, Hastert seemed likely to avoid being forced out before Nov. 7's midterm elections. A new Pew Research Center poll showed that the scandal so far isn't moving voters.
Hastert, in a news conference from his Illinois district that was televised nationwide, said he was "deeply sorry" about any actions that might have jeopardized the safety of congressional pages and that he was taking responsibility, and he added "the buck stops here."
He also expressed optimism that Republicans would maintain control of the House and would choose him to remain their leader. "I'm going to run and presumably win in this election, and when we do I expect to run for speaker," he said.
Hastert maintained that he never attempted to cover up anything related to Foley, but he acknowledged mistakes. "Could we have done it better? Could the page board have handled it better? In retrospect, probably yes," he said.
House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and third-ranking House Republican Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who a day earlier were critical of Hastert's handling of the matter, issued strong statements of support for him Thursday. "I believe strongly he should remain our speaker," Boehner said. Said Blunt: "We all now realize that this terrible situation could have been handled differently. We are all upset; we are all horrified; but we all stand together with our speaker."
In Florida, Rep. Clay Shaw, a Republican locked in a tight re-election contest in a district beside Foley's, also voiced support for Hastert.
On Capitol Hill, the House ethics committee had a closed-door hearing on the matter. Then its members held a news conference to outline the panel's coming investigation into what lawmakers and their staff knew about Foley's involvement with pages, when they knew it and what they did with the information. Committee Chairman Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said the panel already had approved nearly four dozen subpoenas for documents and testimony.
Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., the panel's top Democrat, said of the investigation's expected timeline: "We are looking at weeks, not months." But neither he nor Hastings would commit to producing a report before the elections.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., rejected a plan by Hastert to bring in former FBI director Louis Freeh to investigate the page program. A Pelosi spokesman said the minority leader was concerned that the move could interrupt the ethics investigation and become a public relations ploy.
The Pew Research Center poll suggested that the Foley scandal isn't moving voters much. Before the news broke, voters were telling Pew surveyors that they preferred Democrats to Republicans by 51-38 percent, and after the scandal broke they said the same by 50-37 percent. The differences are statistically insignificant. The Iraq war dominated voters' thinking, not Foley. The survey was conducted Sept. 21-Oct. 4.
ABC News reported Thursday that three more former pages had contacted the network to say that Foley had made advances to them. They weren't identified.
House Republican leaders maintain that they had no knowledge of sexually explicit instant messages between Foley and former pages until ABC News published them last week.
Kirk Fordham, a former chief of staff to Foley and to Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., charged Wednesday that he'd told Hastert's chief of staff three years ago that Foley's relationships with pages could be a problem. Hastert's chief of staff denies that.
Timothy Heaphy, Fordham's attorney, said the FBI interviewed his client Thursday, though he declined to say what was discussed. Heaphy said Fordham stood by his statement that he'd warned Hastert's staff three years ago: "He's not backtracking from that at all."
(The Miami Herald's Luisa Yanez and Beth Reinhard in Miami and Marisa Taylor in Washington contributed to this article.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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