From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby.
Thirty-three days before election day... The wheels on the House GOP bus are wobbling. Two members of the leadership have raised the possibility that the Clerk of the House failed to heed warnings about then-Rep. Mark Foley's behavior. One outgoing top aide suggested the same about Speaker Dennis Hastert's office. The aide, who quit yesterday because of his role in the scandal, charged on his way out that he had warned Hastert's office about Foley before 2005. Then came expressions of concern from Majority Leader John Boehner and House GOP Conference chair Deborah Pryce about rumors that Foley once showed up drunk in front of the House page dorm at night and was stopped by the US Capitol Police. Both members wrote to the Clerk of the House requesting an investigation. A third member of the leadership, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, is saying he would have handled things differently.
Speculation about Hastert's ability to withstand this scandal, at least through the midterm elections, has exploded. If he was on tenterhooks yesterday morning, his position seems more precarious now -- even as he tells the Chicago Tribune he's not resigning.
Boehner wrote the House clerk, "Specifically, it has been alleged that he may have been seen intoxicated at night outside the U.S. House of Representatives Page Dormitory, possibly attempting to gain entry to the building... I am seeking information as to whether this alleged incident occurred and to whom it may have been reported." NBC's Mike Viqueira reports that a similar letter was sent by Pryce, who's locked in a tough battle for re-election in Ohio, where Republicans are already staggering under the weight of scandals involving the governor and resigned Rep. Bob Ney.
Also yesterday, GOP leadership aide Kirk Fordham resigned, blaming Democrats for seeking to make him a "political issue" in his boss' re-election campaign. Rep. Tom Reynolds, for whom Fordham worked as chief of staff, is a top target for Democrats because he chairs the GOP House campaign committee, and Reynolds' early knowledge of the Foley situation has made him more vulnerable in his Buffalo district. On his way out, Fordham asserted that "even prior to the existence of the Foley email exchanges," he had multiple conversations "with senior staff at the highest levels... asking them to intervene when I was informed of Mr. Foley's inappropriate behavior. One of these staffers is still employed by a Senior House Republican Leader."
Hastert chief of staff Scott Palmer responded, "What Kirk Fordham said did not happen." The House Ethics Committee meets behind closed doors today to discuss a probe of how the situation unfolded.
The Foley scandal may be undermining the GOP's chances of keeping their majority in a number of ways: by tainting the public's views of the party's ability to govern, by distracting them from issues they want to focus on (like that border fence they got yesterday), by undermining their advantage over Democrats on moral values, and by depressing voter turnout among social conservatives. From a numbers standpoint, it also puts one more seat in jeopardy -- and that's no small thing.
Foley is the fourth Republican House member to resign this year due to a scandal, but as NBC's Chris Donovan suggests, he also belongs to another class of dubious distinction: the class of Republican candidates who have imploded this year. In an election when every House and Senate seat could matter, the unexpected vulnerability of incumbents like Sen. George Allen and Rep. Don Sherwood -- who, in a new TV ad covered by the AP, apologizes for cheating on his wife but insists he never abused the woman with whom he was having an affair -- is a pretty unwelcome development for the GOP. As is the fact that they're likely to lose two House seats due simply to the logistical hurdles facing their replacement candidates in Foley's and former Rep. Tom DeLay's districts.
Beyond that, Sen. Conrad Burns always was destined to have a close race, but his critical remark about firefighters (along with other ill-judged comments) seems to have sealed his fate. Recent polling shows him trailing his Democratic challenger. That's three House seats and two Senate seats at real risk of falling to Democrats because of the incumbents' gaffes.
Democrats have their problem incumbents, to be sure. They might even wind up falling just short in their bid to retake the Senate if incumbent Bob Menendez's ethical issues cost them that seat. NBC political analyst Charlie Cook says the issue isn't specific to Republicans so much as a hazard of being in a longtime majority party.