WASHINGTON – House Speaker Dennis Hastert defiantly declared Thursday that he'd done nothing wrong relating to the growing Capitol Hill page scandal, and vowed to run again for speaker after the GOP wins back the House in next month's election.
"I'd like to run and presumably win in this election, and when we do, I expect to run for leader, for speaker," Hastert said.
The Illinois Republican said he is taking full responsibility for not being more aggressive in the investigation of former Rep. Mark Foley's inappropriate communications with two underage pages, but said he only heard about Foley's e-mails and explicit instant messages to one of the pages after it appeared in the press last Friday, Sept. 29.
"Our children need to be protected and we're going to do everything we can to protect them," Hastert told reporters gathered outside his district office in Batavia, Ill.
"I only know what I've seen in the press and what I've heard. The fact is we have turned this whole thing over to the FBI," he said, adding that the system of protecting pages, "obviously isn't designed for the electronic age of instant messages."
Hastert had been expected to name an independent House investigator to look into Foley's communiqués with pages and the GOP's handling of it, with former FBI Director Louis Freeh's name floated as a possible choice. Hastert, however, did not make that announcement.
"We're looking for a person of high caliber to advise us on the page program," he said. "I reached out to the Democrat leader and shared with her some of the ideas and we hope to resolve this soon."
Late Thursday, President Bush called Hastert and thanked the speaker for making the public statement taking responsibility, and for pointing out that House Republicans are accountable to the people.
The president told Hastert that he appreciated Republican leaders acting quickly to call on Foley to resign after finding out about the "illicit" instant messages, and for promptly calling for an investigation into "who knew what when." In their first conversation since the controversy erupted last week, Bush expressed his support for the speaker, White House officials said.
Earlier in the day, the head of the House ethics committee announced that his panel had voted unanimously Thursday to form an "investigative subcommittee" to review GOP actions relating to Foley.
"Our new investigative subcommittee met for the first time and unanimously approved nearly four dozen subpoenas for documents and testimony," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, also known as the House ethics committee. Hastings is leading the subpanel.
Hastert has been under the gun since news broke last week that his office knew Foley was sending inappropriate e-mails to teenage male pages, and that Hastert only gave Foley a warning to stop.
"The buck stops here," Hastert said earlier Thursday on FOX News Talk's Brian & the Judge Show, repeating a phrase made famous by President Harry Truman. "What I want to do is turn this around and fight...We need to get this behind us," he said.
Internal polling data from a prominent GOP pollster, however, shows that House Republican candidates will suffer massive losses if Hastert remains speaker until Election Day. A GOP source briefed on the polling data told FOX News that the data suggests House Republican losses could be catastrophic if Hastert's speakership continues.
Still, the GOP source familiar with the polling data said that while most GOP lawmakers have stood by Hastert, pending a full airing of the facts in his handling of the Foley matter, this data now suggest that many voters have already made up their minds.
"The data suggests Americans have bailed on the speaker," the source told FOX News. "And the difference could be between a 20-seat loss and a 50-seat loss."
Meanwhile, the fingerpointing that has characterized the Foley affair since it broke last week continued, as former Foley aide Kirk Fordham came forward Wednesday with charges that he told Hastert's office about Foley's misconduct with pages more than three years ago, and urged that someone intervene. Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, denied the claim.
"What Kirk said didn't happen," Palmer said.
"There's a little bit of difference in the testimony of what he said," Hastert said of conflicts between what Fordham says he said and what Hastert aides say Fordham said.
Fordham said he had "more than one conversation with senior staff at the highest level of the House of Representatives asking them to intervene." He declined to identify them, but officials close to the probe said Palmer, Hastert's chief of staff, was one of them. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
Hastert also reportedly told a conservative activist that he could not quit and let his resignation set up "a feeding frenzy" that would take down other Republican leaders.
Paul Weyrich was quoted Thursday in Congressional Quarterly as saying Hastert is concerned that his fall would have a domino effect on top GOP leaders, including Majority Leader John Boehner; Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, who is the head of the committee to elect House Republicans; and Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, who runs the page program.
Hastert said that he didn't need to step down because his inaction was not the result of neglect on his part. He said information given to him about Foley did not include any details about sexually-charged conversations.
"We were advised in our office and in the clerk's office and to the chairman of the page board that there was a Katrina message, period. We know of no e-mails and insist that there were no other e-mails other than that one that I know of, and we didn't even have the e-mail because the parent didn't want to give the e-mail out," Hastert said.
"Could we have done it better? Could the page board have handled it better? In retrospect, probably yes," he said. "But at that time what we knew and what we acted upon is what we had."
Hastert also claimed the Democrats were using a double standard in judging the Foley scandal.
"What happened to the guy who did it on the [Democrat] side? ... They gave him a chairmanship," Hastert told FOX News radio, making a reference to former Rep. Gerry Studds, who was censured in 1983 for ethical misconduct 10 years after he had a consensual relationship with a 17-year-old page. Studds later chaired the now-defunct House Merchant Marine and Fishing Committee.
"In this case the Republicans did it and [Foley was] gone within hours," Hastert said.
Over at the White House, spokesman Tony Snow refused to be dragged into the minutiae of the Foley scandal or Hastert's future, declining to say how closely President Bush was following the matter.
"I don't think any sane person in any way condones what happened. I am sure the speaker doesn't condone what happened, but they are dealing with the problem. The president's concern is you get the facts out. There are already hearings before the House ethics committee. There is also an investigation going on at the Justice Department. You need to find out what it is, you need to fix it," Snow said.
On Wednesday, Justice Department officials ordered House attorneys to preserve all records related to Foley's electronic correspondence with teenagers. The request for record preservation is often followed by search warrants and subpoenas, and signal that investigators are moving closer to a criminal investigation.
U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales confirmed Thursday that the Justice Department was following the e-mail and IM trail.
"There was information received by the department in the summer, all part of what we'll be looking at this investigation to determine if there's any criminal activity," Gonzales told reporters in Minneapolis. "Let us get facts before we determine possible crimes.
The Foley scandal took another unsavory twist late Wednesday, as new allegations surfaced that Foley's conduct may have gone past the computer keyboard and into the pages' residence hall. Reports alleged that Foley showed up while intoxicated at the page boarding rooms on Capitol Hill, but was stopped by the Capitol Police.
Republican Rep. Deborah Pryce asked the clerk of the House, who is the chief administrator of the page program, and the Capitol Police for any information about the alleged incident.
The House ethics panel met behind closed doors Thursday morning to discuss the Foley case.
Richard Phelan, who previously served as outside council to the committee, said the panel would do best to hire an outside lawyer to conduct the Foley probe.
"The perception outside (Washington) is that Congress and the speaker and those running Congress have screwed this thing up," Phelan said of the current case.
Hastings did not mention appointing an outside counsel, but said members of the committee will be aided by a team of skilled investigators.
"Many of the individuals we plan to talk to are members, officers and staffs of the House. For that reason, we sincerely hope that most of the subpoenas we authorize today will prove unnecessary, because we believe that most of these individuals share our desire to get quick and truthful answers to the questions that are being asked by so many Americans," Hastings said.
"In terms of time frame, we are looking at weeks, not months. I want to reemphasize the point that the chairman made, that we will go where the evidence takes us," Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., ranking member of the panel, said, adding that he "wanted no part of an incumbent protection agency."
Ron Bonjean, Hastert's spokesman, said Hastert has confidence the panel will conduct the investigation carefully and completely.
"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," Bonjean said.
Hastert has repeatedly insisted on several occasions that he he did not know about the lurid instant messages until last week. He also tried to turn the tables on some of his critics, telling The Chicago Tribune that someone must have had information about the IMs before Republicans did.
"I think the (Republican) base has to realize after awhile, who knew about it? Who knew what, when? When the base finds out who's feeding the monster, they're not going to be happy. The people who want to see this thing blow up are ABC News and a lot of Democratic operatives, people funded by George Soros," Hastert said.
Soros is a billionaire activist who funds MoveOn.org and other liberal interest groups.
A fallen speaker "is exactly what our opponents would like to have happen," Hastert told The Chicago Tribune. He added Democrats want the speaker to "fold my tent and others would fold our tent and they would sweep the House."
But with Republican operatives suggesting that the Foley scandal could doom the GOP majority, at least a few disgruntled members of the GOP rank and file had discussed whether to call on the speaker to step aside, said GOP officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats appeared more than willing to hold the GOP leadership accountable.
"This is not an issue just about Speaker Hastert. There are many in the leadership ... who had an awareness," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. "We all have a responsibility to those pages. Any one of us who had information about the danger they were in had a responsibility and must be held accountable. So it's not just about Speaker Hastert, it's about the Republican leadership and a caucus that condoned their thinking that they could operate outside the rules."
Foley, 52, is now in an alcohol rehabilitation facility at an undisclosed location. His attorney said Foley is gay, but never had sexual contact with underage boys.
FOX News' Major Garrett and Molly Henneberg and The Associated Press contributed to this report.