WASHINGTON – A week into a sex scandal involving teenage House pages, President Bush called House Speaker Dennis Hastert on Thursday to thank the embattled Republican leader for how he has handled the situation.
In a phone call lasting several minutes, Bush expressed support for Hastert, under fire from conservatives unhappy with what he did and didn't do about former Rep. Mark Foley's sexually suggestive messages to teens.
"The president thanked him for going out and making a clear public statement that said the House leadership takes responsibility and is accountable," White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said.
"He said he appreciated that when they got the information, they swiftly took action making clear that Rep. Foley should step down and promptly requested a Department of Justice investigation. And he expressed his support for the speaker," Perino said.
Earlier in the day, the White House tried to distance Bush from any political backlash, saying that House Republicans were dealing with the matter and do not need to be told what to do.
"Everybody here wants the president to come in and tell the House how to do its business," said presidential spokesman Tony Snow, emphasizing that Congress and the White House are separate branches of government.
Some conservatives have called for Hastert's resignation on grounds that he and his staff did not act quickly enough on warnings about the conduct of Foley, R-Fla., who resigned last week after the disclosure that he sent sexually explicit messages to teenage pages.
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney support the speaker and do not want him to resign, Snow said, although the spokesman acknowledged that the facts of the case are unclear.
"In absence of full information, we're sticking with what we've got," Snow said of Hastert. "We don't think that Denny Hastert's the kind of guy who says, 'Man, that's great stuff; we're really glad Foley was doing that on the sly."'
Republicans are worried the scandal could cost them control of the House and possibly the Senate in next month's elections. That would throw a huge cloud over the remaining two years of Bush's presidency, giving Democrats power to probe his administration's decisions and derail his priorities.
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that about half of likely voters say recent disclosures of corruption and scandal in Congress will be very or extremely important when they cast their vote next month.
"I don't think you should hold every member of Congress responsible for what happened in the case of Mark Foley," Snow said. "Come Election Day, the question is whether people are going to be voting on the basis of disgusting IMs (instant messages) between a grown man and a young man or something that's probably more important to everybody, which is safety, security and prosperity."
Snow also took a shot at the media over the coverage of the scandal.
"Have you been reading the press? Of course, it's a trial," he said. "They've got a hanging jury out there and everything." Later, he said he was being glib.