- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2006

Republican leaders closed ranks yesterday around House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, while candidates facing election in November continued to distance themselves from Mr. Hastert for his handling of a scandal that could cost Republicans control of Congress.

Several top Republicans, including President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, have rallied behind Mr. Hastert in recent days after the speaker and other House Republicans were criticized for not responding more aggressively when they learned of ex-Rep. Mark Foley’s “over-friendly” relationship with a congressional page.

But in a clear indication of the damage the scandal could cause the Republican Party in November, some candidates continue to distance themselves.

State Sen. Tom Kean Jr., New Jersey Republican, who is running for the Senate, called yesterday for Mr. Hastert of Illinois to step down.

“He is the head of that institution, and this happened on his watch, and Kean urges House leaders to go further by appointing an outside panel to review the matter immediately,” said Jill Hazelbaker, Mr. Kean’s spokeswoman.

Mr. Kean hopes to unseat Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, and pushed for a broad investigation of anyone in leadership who knew about the concerns involving Mr. Foley.

“This disturbing situation is another reason why the public holds the Congress in such low esteem. The culture of protecting each other has eroded Congress and the public’s faith in government, and the system needs reform,” Ms. Hazelbaker said.

In Kentucky, Rep. Ron Lewis this week canceled a fundraising appearance with Mr. Hastert.

Even candidates who aren’t explicitly chiding Mr. Hastert are at least denouncing the Republican Congress for the scandal and casting doubt that an independent investigation can be conducted by the House ethics committee, which Thursday opened a probe into the matter.

“To assure that this grievous behavior does not occur again in the halls of Congress, an independent investigation is necessary,” said Michael Bouchard, the Republican challenging Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat. “The investigation must be taken out of the hands of politicians and put into the hands of trained investigators.”

But Mr. Bouchard, the sheriff of Michigan’s second-largest county, was quick to say that it’s not a partisan issue.

“This is not about Republicans and Democrats. This is about right and wrong, cracking down on criminals, and protecting victims,” he said yesterday. “An independent investigation will take politics out of the process.”

Conservatives, for the most part, have toned down the calls for Mr. Hastert to give up his leadership post.

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III said yesterday that Mr. Hastert should not become “a sacrificial lamb.”

Mr. Baker warned on CBS’ “The Early Show” yesterday that dumping Mr. Hastert would not bring an end to the scandal.

“If they throw Denny Hastert off the sled to slow down the wolves, it won’t be long before you’ll be crying, ‘Hey, you’ve got to throw somebody else over because they knew about it, too,’ ” Mr. Baker said.

And while the conservative publication Human Events stopped short of calling for Mr. Hastert to resign, an editorial yesterday said he should quit his speaker post before the next Congress is seated in January.

“Conservatives differ on whether House Speaker Dennis Hastert ought to resign right now, but it cannot be reasonably argued that Hastert is the best possible choice to lead Republicans in the next Congress,” the publication said. “He is not.”

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