GOP Leaders Defend Hastert in Wake of Foley Scandal as New Allegations Surface

With just a month before elections, Republican leaders work to defend House Speaker Dennis Hastert over his handling of the Mark Foley scandal Sunday even as new allegations emerged in a report by the Los Angeles Times.

In an interview that appeared in the L.A. Times Sunday, a former House page claimed to have had a "sexual encounter" with Foley in 2000, when the man was 21.

"I always knew you were a player but I don't fool around with pages," said one instant message Foley allegedly sent to the page, who gave the interview under the condition of anonymity.

He and Foley maintained correspondence electronically following the congressional page program and did not have an encounter until he was a 21-year-old college student, the man told the newspaper.

Hastert canceled a broadcast appearance Sunday and one Republican lawmaker said resignations would be in order for anyone involved in a cover-up.

"Anybody that hindered this in any kind of way, tried to step in the way of hiding this, covering it up, is going to have to step down. Whoever that is," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va.

"Anybody that hindered this in any kind of way, tried to step in the way of hiding this, covering it up, is going to have to step down. Whoever that is," said Congressman Tom Davis of Virginia.

The House ethics committee is investigating the matter. If it finds evidence of a cover-up, the punishment could range from a mild rebuke in a committee report to a House vote of censure or expulsion.

Congressman Thomas Reynolds, who heads the House Republicans' re-election effort, would have been the chamber's top Republican official on the Sunday talk shows. Booked weeks ago for ABC's "This Week," his office canceled without explanation on Saturday and arranged for a substitute guest, Congressman Adam Putnam, a Florida Republican, a network spokeswoman said.

Reynolds has been criticized by Democrats who say he did too little to protect a male teenage House intern from Foley, the Florida Republican who resigned Sept. 29 after the disclosure of his sexually explicit electronic messages to teenage former teen interns. Foley is now under investigation by federal and Florida authorities.

The scandal has ignited a political firestorm, jeopardizing the Republican majority in the U.S. Congress just before the Nov. 7 elections, when American voters will select all 435 members of the House of Representatives, 33 of the 100 senators and 36 of the 50 state governors.

On the day after Foley resigned, Reynolds said he had told Hastert months ago about concerns that Foley had sent inappropriate messages to male teen interns after Reynolds became aware of them last spring.

Hastert since has insisted he was not aware of the charges until more recently. Reynolds, meanwhile, now says he cannot remember exactly when he learned of Foley's e-mails or when he told Hastert about them.

Reynolds began an ad campaign Saturday in which he apologizes for not doing more.

A Reynolds spokesman said the New York congressman had flu-like symptoms and could not appear on the ABC talk show Sunday. Reynolds, whose district covers an economically distressed stretch of New York state, is now trailing his Democratic opponent, Jack Davis, by a 48-33 percent margin, according to a poll conducted by Zogby International for The Buffalo News.

Hastert, an Illinois Republican, last week accepted responsibility but resisted pressure to resign over his handling of the scandal.

Congressman Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican, said Democrats should be investigated to see whether they leaked the explicit e-mails to gain a political advantage before the elections, although the lawmaker acknowledged he had no evidence indicating that was the case.

Responded Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel of New York: "I think it's ridiculous. But if I was in a bind, as the Republicans are now, I guess I would be reaching for straws. But it's sad."

Almost half of Americans surveyed in a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll said recent disclosures of corruption and scandal will be extremely or very important to their vote.

A Newsweek poll released this weekend showed more than half of those surveyed believe Hastert tried to cover up news of Foley's messages to the teenage interns. This poll gives Democrats the advantage on handling moral values, normally a Republican strong point.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.