WASHINGTON – Absent allegations directly linking Rep. Gary Condit to Chandra Levy's disappearance, most congressional colleagues seemed willing Thursday to give him the benefit of the doubt.
"When someone hits a rough spot, do you throw him overboard? I don't think so," said Rep. Anna Eshoo, like Condit a Democrat from California. "None of us here, Republican or Democrat, kick people when they're down."
Republican Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., agreed that "none of us is here wishing him ill."
"People don't want to judge him because they don't know all the facts," Foley said. "It's almost a Shakespearean tragedy — you wish the water torture would stop."
Privately, many House members say they are are aghast at the series of revelations linking the married, 53-year-old Condit romantically to the missing 24-year-old intern and other young women. Some find fault with the way Condit has handled the matter, particularly his unwillingness to address it publicly in more detail.
Others see parallels with former President Clinton's impeachment involving White House intern Monica Lewinsky. One House Republican who prosecuted those impeachment articles, GOP Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, said such affairs "indicate that we have a very serious societal problem here."
"You can't have interns coming to Washington and have stuff going on. It's bad policy," Barr said.
Yet one of Clinton's fiercest critics, Majority Whip Tom DeLay, responded indirectly, and mildly, when asked to comment on Condit.
"The best way to keep your family together is to move them to Washington," said DeLay, R-Texas. DeLay's family lived in the capital until his daughter had grown up; his wife now lives in Texas with their foster children.
From a purely political standpoint, Republicans could have a prime opportunity to pick up Condit's seat if he either resigns or is politically weakened by scandal. President Bush carried Condit's district in the 2000 presidential election and local Republicans are already gearing for a bid to take the seat in 2002.
Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the fund-raising National Republican Congressional Committee, said the GOP does not anticipate that Condit will resign in the meantime.
"There's no vacancy right now. I have no reason to believe there will be. But we understand the landscape," Davis said.
Democrats said they would prefer to defend Condit's House seat in November 2002, when all seats are on the ballot, rather than in a special election, which would occur if he resigned. They also say they have received no indication from the congressman that he intends to step down.
"There's definitely a sense of a need to plan for the Democratic future in that district that wasn't there a couple of weeks ago — and discussions of who would be the strongest candidate to save the seat," said Gale Kaufman, a Sacramento political consultant who ran Bill Bradley's presidential campaign in California last year. "And it's no longer idle speculation, it's serious discussion."
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., has repeatedly sought to move the media focus toward finding Levy.
"Gary is cooperating in every possible way with the police investigation to try to make this happen, and that's what he should continue to do," Gephardt said. "I think he's doing what he's been asked to do."
Many colleagues say it would be wrong for Washington politicians to call on Condit to resign.
"The seat belongs to the people in his district, not to the party and not to the people here in Washington," said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C.
Condit, for his part, is keeping up appearances of normalcy. He chatted frequently with other lawmakers during debate Thursday on campaign finance legislation and he took part in meetings this week with a coalition of Democratic conservatives known as "Blue Dogs." Since May 1, he has missed only three roll call votes.
"We hope the outcome is positive for him and his family," said Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas, another member of the Blue Dog group.
Judicial Watch, a conservative legal group, has been trying unsuccessfully to find a single lawmaker among the 434 of them to sponsor an ethics complaint that would launch a House investigation of Condit's conduct. Judicial Watch's Larry Klayman said it comes as no surprise that lawmakers would close ranks around Condit.
"It says that Congress is morally and ethically bankrupt," he said. "It tells people that they protect their own. It says that they don't want to create a precedent."