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Speaker Dennis Hastert says he will not resign

WASHINGTON—House Speaker Dennis Hastert said Tuesday that he won't resign, despite pressure from Republicans who say he didn't do enough to protect teenage congressional pages from the sexual advances of a Florida congressman who resigned last week in disgrace.

Hastert's firm stance in an interview on Rush Limbaugh's radio show came hours before former Rep. Mark Foley's lawyer announced that his 52-year-old client is gay and was molested in his early teens by a clergyman. Foley's lawyer also said that the former lawmaker had told him "unequivocally" that he'd never had sexual contact with a minor.

The FBI is investigating Foley over the explicit Internet chatter with former pages, and he has enrolled in a rehab program.

As Foley confronted his demons, Hastert sought to quell an uprising among Republican voters five weeks before congressional elections. For the moment, at least, key Republican strategists said Hastert is likely to survive as speaker of the House rather than be forced to resign.

Asked on Limbaugh's show if he'd resign, Hastert, R-Ill, said: "I'm not going to do that."

President Bush and several Republican congressmen stood by Hastert. They said they trust assurances that Hastert and his deputies knew only about an e-mail that Foley sent to a former page in 2005, in which Foley asked the page to e-mail him a photo of himself. House Republican leaders said they believed after speaking with the boy's parents and questioning Foley that the congressman's activities had gone no further, so they took no more action.

Hastert and other House leaders have said they weren't aware that Foley had sent dozens of sexually explicit instant messages to one or more former pages. In them, Foley discussed masturbation, urged a former page to meet him for a rendezvous and apparently engaged in cybersex with a former page between House votes. ABC News published the messages online.

While most Republicans stood by Hastert, The Washington Times, a newspaper in the nation's capital that's influential with conservatives, called for Hastert to step down.

"Either he was grossly negligent for not taking the red flags fully into account . . . or he deliberately looked the other way in hopes that a brewing scandal would simply blow away," the Times said in an editorial Tuesday. "Mr. Hastert has forfeited the confidence of the public and his party."

House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, also seemed to be distancing himself from Hastert in a morning radio interview in Cincinnati.

"He told me it had been taken care of. . . My position is it's in his corner," Boehner said of Hastert.

But by afternoon, Boehner released a letter disagreeing with the Times' editorial, voicing confidence that Hastert would have moved decisively against Foley if he'd known more about his conduct.

Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian group that's influential with conservatives, chose not to focus on Hastert in a statement.

"Those truly interested in protecting children from online predators should spend less time calling for Speaker Hastert to step down and more time demanding that the Justice Department enforce existing laws that would limit the proliferation of the kind of filth that leads grown men to think it's perfectly OK to send lurid e-mails to 16-year-old boys," it said.

Bush, speaking to reporters after visiting an elementary school in Stockton, Calif., called Hastert "a father, teacher, coach who cares about the children of this country. I know that he wants all the facts to come out, and he wants to ensure that these children up there on Capitol Hill are protected."

But some Democratic candidates called for Hastert's head and challenged their Republican opponents to do the same.

"Congressman Fitzpatrick should join me in calling for the speaker's resignation from Congress," Democrat Patrick Murphy said in a radio debate with Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Pa.

In Kentucky, Democratic challenger Ken Lucas called on Republican Rep. Geoff Davis to "put politics aside" and do "what is morally right."

Several Republican strategists and nonpartisan analysts said Hastert is unlikely to yield.

"If it comes down to all he saw was the original e-mails, I think he can defend his position pretty strongly," said GOP strategist Ed Goeas.

"If these are the facts as we know them now, nobody is going to ask him to resign," said GOP strategist Charlie Black. "Feeding frenzies can topple people, but I'm predicting that in this case, unless more facts come out, it won't."

Democratic consultant Steve Elmendorf also said he doubted Republicans would depose Hastert, because that could "accelerate the story."

Because Hastert isn't as polarizing or well-known as former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, "Dennis Hastert going away is not enough change," Elmendorf said. "The change (voters) want is which party is controlling Congress."

Stephen Hess, a veteran political analyst at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank, predicted that Republicans would keep Hastert in charge until November because "you look like you're in total disarray if you throw your leader overboard before you even know what the details are."

After the election, however, Republicans may decide "they want to do some house cleaning," especially if they lose their House majority, Hess said.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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