Rift among GOP leaders

The unfolding scandal surrounding ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) has severed relations between Republican leaders in the House as they continued to point fingers at one another yesterday.

The unfolding scandal surrounding ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) has severed relations between Republican leaders in the House as they continued to point fingers at one another yesterday.

As criticism mounts and the media spotlight intensifies, the elected leadership offices remain largely isolated from each other as another leader yesterday questioned the initial handling of Foley’s e-mails by House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and his staff.

Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who was the acting leader last fall, told reporters in Springfield, Mo., yesterday that he would have explored the issue further if the Speaker’s staff had told him about the e-mails between Foley and a former page.

“I think I could have given some good advice here, which is you have to be curious, you have to ask all the questions you can think of,” Blunt said. “You absolutely can’t decide not to look into activities because one individual’s parents don’t want you to.”

Meanwhile, a top aide to National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) resigned amid revelations that he tried to subvert evidence of Rep. Mark Foley’s (R-Fla.) e-mail exchange with a former page.

Kirk Fordham, the chief of staff in Reynolds’s personal office who formerly served as Foley’s chief of staff, announced his resignation yesterday in a statement released by the campaign chief’s personal office.

Upon announcing his resignation, Reynolds’s former chief of staff told the AP yesterday that he had warned leaders about Foley’s conduct with the pages over two years ago. That revelation, if true, would cast further doubt on Hastert’s handling of the event.

Fordham reportedly asked the ABC news reporter who first broke the story to suppress the e-mails in exchange for an exclusive interview with Foley.

“I want to clarify a few things: When I sought to help Congressman Foley and his family when his shocking secrets were being revealed, I did so as a friend of my former boss, not as Congressman Reynolds’ Chief of Staff,” Fordham wrote. “I want it to be perfectly clear that I never attempted to prevent any inquiries or investigation of Foley’s conduct by House officials or other authorities.”

Fordham told The Associated Press yesterday that when he was told about Foley’s inappropriate behavior toward pages, he had “more than one conversation with senior staff at the highest level of the House of Representatives asking them to intervene.”

ABC News reported at press time that Palmer had been told that Foley was too friendly with House pages and according to Fordham, Palmer spoke to Foley about the matter.

One House leadership aide disputed Fordham’s comments yesterday, citing remarks the former chief of staff made to the AP earlier in the day.

“This is the same guy who is now contradicting his comments made this morning,” the aide said.

As evidence, the aide attached an earlier Fordham quote about the e-mails:

“I was still pretty shellshocked myself,” Fordham said of the day he learned about the messages. “This was someone I had worked for 10 years. I had no inkling that this kind of blatantly reckless - just obscene — behavior was going on behind our backs.”

Fordham, Hastert chief of staff Scott Palmer, and former Clerk of the House Jeff Trandahl are expected to testify before the House ethics committee today, one source said. Members of the panel are scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. at the closed-door session.

“This matter has been referred to the [ethics committee] and we fully expect that the bipartisan panel will do what it needs to do to investigate this matter and protect the integrity of the House,” Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean said.

Reynolds, who is facing a serious challenge from a self-funded Democrat this fall, has become a focal point of the Foley episode because of the role his former aide played and because he said he discussed the issue with Hastert last spring, a conversation the Speaker told reporters earlier this week he does not recall.

The GOP campaign chief, who has had a close relationship with the Speaker (they frequently have dinner together), did not attend a leadership meeting to discuss the details and possible response to the late-breaking Foley scandal early Saturday morning in House Majority Leader John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) office, several Republican aides said.

During that session, members and staff discussed holding a conference call later that day with the entire Republican conference in order to explain the details of the case, including what the leaders knew and when they knew it, aides present said. Some people in the meeting argued against the call, so the leaders decided to postpone it, the same aides said.

With questions swirling about what the Speaker knew and when he knew it, Hastert’s staff released their own timeline on Saturday, shortly after Reynolds issued a statement disputing Hastert’s initial response to news of Foley’s resignation.

Reynolds was not on the phone call Monday when leaders did finally convene a conference call with their members because he was traveling back from a campaign event in Florida, a spokesman said yesterday.

Boehner, meanwhile, has gone back and forth on his own remarks about a conversation he had with the Speaker before telling a Cincinnati radio station on Tuesday that he had discussed the initial e-mails with Hastert.

During the same interview, the leader said the Speaker has oversight over the page system and the offices that run it, a remark many interpreted as a direct slight of the Speaker.

Whether or not the Speaker or any other leaders are forced to resign over this controversy, it has created a significant rift in what had been a relatively unified leadership.

If Hastert holds on to his job and Republicans maintain their majority – an increasingly difficult prospect in the aftermath of the Foley scandal – the animus between the leaders will certainly carry over to the next Congress, GOP aides and lobbyists said this week.

Some Republican operatives interviewed for this article have complained in recent days that Boehner went too far in distancing himself from the Speaker, but the leader has a reputation for talking off-the-cuff with reporters and rarely sticks to a script during live interviews.

Others have been frustrated with the Speaker’s staff for isolating themselves from the other offices during their fevered efforts to get ahead of the story and keep Hastert in his job. There is a perception that the Speaker’s staff holds the fate of the entire conference in its hands.

“It is a terrible position to be in,” a GOP aide said. “Watching from the sidelines the situation go from bad to worse and not being able to do anything about it.”

Rank-and-file staffers have been pointing fingers of their own at some colleagues they believe are trying to foment change atop the leadership ranks, but none of the aides interviewed could point to a specific call, letter or e-mail to undermine any one of the leaders.

Amidst this poisoned atmosphere for the GOP, a handful of prominent conservative lawmakers released statements of support for Hastert this week, led by Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) on Tuesday night.

Reps. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee, followed suit yesterday, releasing a letter that questions the initial handling of the e-mails while unequivocally rejecting calls for him to resign.

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