House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, has scheduled a press conference this morning in Chicago.
What will Hastert, who faces mounting pressure to quit over his mishandling of the scandal surrounding former Congressional Mark Foley, have to say?
Chances are, Hastert may not know.
In a Wednesday evening interview with the Chicago Tribune — which followed the announcement by Foley’s former chief of staff that he had warned Hastert’s office more than two years ago about the Florida congressman’s inappropriate behavior toward teenage pages – the Speaker said he was not going to quit. “Look, I’ve talked to our members,” Hastert told the largest newspaper in his home state. “Our members are supportive. I think that (resignation) is exactly what our opponents would like to have happen — that I’d fold my tent and others would fold our tent and they would sweep the House.”
But it wasn’t just Democrats who were telling Hastert to fold the tent.
Human Events, the influential conservative weekly newspaper, is reportedly set to editorialize today for Hastert’s exit and the election of a new Speaker. “We think the Republicans need new leaders, and I don’t think Hastert will be there much longer,” explained Human Events the editor-in-chief Tom Winter in an interview Wednesday. “I think (Hastert) has to do this for the team, he has to step down.”
Another conservative publication, the Washington Times, called earlier in the week for Hastert’s resignation.
But the real measure of Hastert’s troubles may be coming from the ranks of his own caucus. Congressman Ron Lewis, a Kentucky Republican who is waging a tough reelection campaign, announced on Wednesday that he had cancelled a fundraiser that was to have featured Hastert.
Lewis is unlikely to be the only Republican in a close race to distance himself or herself from Hastert, who is under fire for failing to respond adequately when concerns were raised about sexually-explicit communications between Foley and congressional pages and who, since the scandal broke last week, has repeatedly been caught in lies about it.
As conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote late Wednesday, “a dysfunctional House leadership” – led by Hastert – is now a key factor threatening GOP control of the House. “The anger by rank-and-file Republican House members over the incompetence of their leaders is palpable,” explained Novak.
All of this points to the prospect of a Hastert resignation. What argues against that prospect?
One big argument that key Republicans are making for keeping Hastert is the challenge of finding another leader who is not tarnished by the scandal. Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, is at least as closely tied to the scandal as Hastert, as are other top Republicans such as New York Congressman Tom Reynolds, the chair of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.
The former Foley aide who has come forward to challenge Hastert’s version of events had served as chief of staff for Reynolds until the aide abruptly resigned Wednesday.
One suggestion that seems to be gaining traction is a proposal that Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde, a senior Republican who is not seeking reelection, might replace Hastert for the short term.
But many Republicans fear that even a shuffle of leadership that put the reasonably well-regarded Hyde in charge would not be enough to make the party’s problems go away. Indeed, there is concern that a Hastert resignation would bring so much additional attention to the scandal that disenchantment among religious conservatives – essential supporters of the GOP in recent election cycles – would spread. No one thinks that fundamentalist voters will switch as a group to the Democrats in this fall’s elections. Rather, the fear is a portion of the party’s social-conservative base would simply fail to turn out on Election Day.