WASHINGTON - Republicans rallied behind House Speaker Dennis Hastert this weekend as they tried to present a united front to deal with the congressional page sex scandal that's rocked the GOP a month before midterm elections.
A claim by Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., that "the dirty laundry in our conference is gone" may be premature.
Putnam sat in for New York Rep. Tom Reynolds, who canceled an appearance on ABC's "This Week" because, said an aide, he was suffering from a "flu-like" ailment. Reynolds is facing a tough re-election fight against Democrat Jack Davis.
Reynolds has been criticized by Democrats who say he did too little to protect a male teenage page from Rep. Mark Foley, the Florida Republican who resigned Sept. 29 after disclosure of his inappropriate electronic messages to former congressional pages. Foley is now under investigation by federal and Florida authorities.
Putnam, who heads the Republican Policy Committee, sought to make the case that Hastert's office "acted proactively, they acted aggressively, and within hours of the explicit e-mails coming to light, they demanded Foley's resignation."
"The dirty laundry in our conference is gone," he said.
But the problems still surround the Foley case. One Republican lawmaker said Sunday that those who participated in a cover-up would have to resign.
"Anybody that hindered this in any kind of way, tried to step in the way of hiding this, covering it up, is going to have to step down. Whoever that is," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va.
The House ethics committee is investigating the matter. If it finds evidence of a cover-up, the punishment could range from a mild rebuke in a committee report to a House vote of censure or expulsion.
Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., said Democrats should be investigated to see whether they leaked the explicit e-mails to gain a political advantage before the elections, although the lawmaker acknowledged he had no evidence indicating that was the case.
Responded Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.: "I think it's ridiculous. But if I was in a bind, as the Republicans are now, I guess I would be reaching for straws. But it's sad."
Hastert, R-Ill., last week tried to blame the Democrats and the media for leaking the story then accepted responsibility but resisted pressure to resign over his handling of the scandal.
"There's been a lot of ducking and dodging and diving and weaving," said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill. "There is a lot of fingerpointing that had gone on earlier in the week, but I do think people are behind the speaker now."
Republicans have mixed views on the upcoming elections.
"This is going to be the most difficult 30 days in the last 12 years that we've been the majority party," LaHood said. The GOP took power after the 1994 election.
Putnam said voters are more focused on an improving economy as well as Iraq and the fight against terrorism, although the page scandal will have an effect.
"It certainly has put members all across the country in the position of having to answer uncomfortable questions about tawdry deeds by a former colleague," he said.
Because of the scandal, Davis said "there's no oxygen" for issues that are important to people and that's hurting Republicans. He called 30 days an eternity in politics but that "it's a tough lift right now. ... There are so many races in the margins."
Almost half of Americans surveyed in a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll said recent disclosures of corruption and scandal will be extremely or very important to their vote.
Also, more than half of those surveyed in a Newsweek poll released this weekend believe Hastert tried to cover up news of Foley's messages to the pages. That poll gives Democrats the advantage on handling moral values, normally a Republican strong point.
On the day after Foley resigned, Reynolds said he had told Hastert months ago about concerns that Foley had sent inappropriate messages once Reynolds became aware of them.
Hastert since has insisted he was not aware of the charges until more recently. Reynolds, meanwhile, now says he cannot remember exactly when he learned of Foley's e-mails or when he told Hastert about them.
Reynolds began an ad campaign Saturday in which he apologized for not doing more.
"Nobody's angrier and more disappointed that I didn't catch his lies," Reynolds says. "I trusted that others had investigated. Looking back, more should have been done, and for that, I am sorry."
Putnam was on ABC, McHenry and Rangel appeared on CNN's "Late Edition," Davis and LaHood were on CBS' "Face the Nation."