WASHINGTON – The second-ranking House Democrat on Sunday joined the party leadership in urging Rep. Anthony Weiner to quit because of his sexting scandal, a request the New York lawmaker has sidestepped in favor of a temporary leave of absence.
The Republican Party chairman criticized Democratic leaders for not taking a more forceful stand earlier on the affair, which has overshadowed much of the legislative business on Capitol Hill over the past week.
Weiner has acknowledged exchanging messages and photos, ranging from sexually suggestive to explicit, with several women online. The latest to surface appeared on the gossip website TMZ.
The photos posted Sunday were purportedly taken in the House members' gym and show a shirtless Weiner with a towel around his waist and his hand on his crotch. In one photo he is naked and holding the towel over his crotch. TMZ said the photos were sent online to at least one woman.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, spoke of Weiner's "bizarre and unacceptable behavior" in sending inappropriate pictures of himself to young women. Hoyer said it would be "extraordinarily difficult" for Weiner to continue to represent his constituents effectively.
In New York, foes and supporters of Weiner confronted each other.
"He's not fit to be our congressman," said Jim Scott, 61, one of about two dozen constituents who rallied in front of Weiner's office in the Kew Gardens section of Queens. "People are sick of him, especially his attitude."
Half a dozen Weiner supporters gathered a few yards away. College student Olivia Lurrie, 18, said Weiner was a good leader who made a mistake.
Weiner announced Saturday that he was entering professional treatment at an undisclosed location and wanted a leave of absence from Congress. A statement from an aide did not say where he would receive treatment or what type was involved.
That announcement came right after House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the national party head, said Weiner must go.
Weiner said at news conference last Monday that he had lied in previously saying that he had not sent any photos. Pelosi immediately called for an ethics committee investigation. But it was not until the weekend that leaders said he should step down.
Hoyer said the ethics committee process to decide if Weiner had committed an expellable offense would take time and "I really don't know if we have that time." He said he didn't see how Weiner could stay in office.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Weiner should resign. "We've got important work to do and this is a ridiculous distraction," he said in an appearance with Hoyer on "Face the Nation" on CBS.
Lawmakers marching Sunday in New York's Puerto Rican Day parade were less demanding. "I think it could have been handled better," Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said when asked whether he stood with Pelosi in calling for Weiner's resignation.
Rangel, who was censured by the House last year for ethics violations, was also asked if he thought it was a good idea for Weiner to take time off to enter treatment. "He is the one that knows the best, he and his wife," Rangel responded.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., declined to comment any further, saying, "Those of us who have been longtime friends of Anthony are heartbroken, and I'm just going to try to enjoy the parade today."
On NBC's "Meet the Press," Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus criticized Pelosi and other Democrats for not acting sooner.
"It seemed to me that for the first 10 days in this circus ... the only job that Nancy Pelosi was interested in saving was Anthony Weiner's," he said.
That drew a sharp retort from Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who accused Republicans of a double standard.
She said that Republican leaders didn't call for the resignation of Sen. David Vitter, R-La., when he got caught up in a prostitution scandal, and that Priebus had not publicly sought the resignation of former Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who stepped down this year over an affair with a staffer's wife.
Wasserman Schultz said party officials initially gave Weiner "some breathing room" to reach the conclusion that he needed to step down on his own, but decided to toughen their stance Saturday after it became apparent he would not do so.
David B. Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron, said Sunday: "Had Anthony Weiner not been a rising star in the party and such a hero to progressives, he would have already been gone. But the fact that he is a national figure that has a national base of support bought him some time."
A leave of absence may be Weiner's only chance to rehabilitate his career, Cohen said. "Remorse isn't going to cut it in this case. Buy some time, and some time out of the public spotlight."