WASHINGTON — The House Ethics Committee on Thursday opened an investigation into the scandal surrounding the congressional page system, a furor that has ended the political career of one lawmaker and jeopardized the leadership position of Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
Hastert, at a news conference in his home district, rejected calls that he resign as speaker in the face of criticism that his office reacted too slowly to the problem. He also tried to quell the controversy with a pointed statement accepting responsibility for the handling of the matter, capped by revelations that Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) had sent sexually explicit instant messages to teens who had served as House pages.
"I am deeply sorry that this has happened," Hastert said. "Ultimately, as someone said in Washington before, the buck stops here."
Foley resigned Friday after ABC News asked him about two sets of explicit messages.
Even as Hastert offered a note of contrition and the political parties joined in the ethics investigation, partisan sparks continued to crackle.
Republicans implied that Democrats were behind the timing of the scandal's emergence and accused House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) of blocking a plan by Hastert to appoint former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh to review the page program.
ABC News reported Thursday that three more former pages had come forward with accounts of receiving sexually explicit instant messages and e-mails from Foley. A GOP-friendly website, the Drudge Report, had published allegations earlier Thursday that one of the two sets of instant messages initially given to ABC was a "prank" by another former page to goad Foley into writing the explicit messages.
"This was no prank," one of the three who came forward Thursday told ABC.
Several Republicans said they did not believe that the ethics inquiry and Hastert's apology would quell the controversy and questions about how GOP leaders handled it -- especially after a charge made earlier this week by Foley's former top aide, Kirk Fordham, that Hastert's staff had been warned of potential problems far earlier than they have acknowledged.
Some GOP leaders issued statements in support of Hastert in a concerted effort to close divisions in the party's upper ranks.
But most House Republicans remained silent, and some strategists confided that they believed the party and its leaders were still not out of the woods.
"Is the speaker going to survive? I don't know," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Said GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio: "My biggest fear is: What is the next shoe?"
But White House spokesman Tony Snow said he doubted that the misconduct of one Republican would tarnish others.
"Come election day, the question is whether people are going to be voting on the basis of disgusting [instant messages] between a grown man and a young man, or something that's probably more important to everybody, which is safety, security and prosperity," he said.
The investigation will be a test of the ethics panel's ability to rise above the partisan paralysis that has plagued it in recent years. In its first meeting, a special investigative subcommittee agreed unanimously to issue nearly four dozen subpoenas for documents and witnesses.
"Simply put, the American people, and especially the parents of all current and former pages, are entitled to know how this situation was handled," said committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Howard L. Berman of Valley Village, the panel's top Democrat, in a joint statement after a closed-door meeting.
Fordham said Wednesday that he had informed Hastert's office more than two years ago of Foley's "inappropriate behavior" around the teenage pages. He was interviewed Thursday by the FBI, which is conducting its own inquiry. Hastert's chief of staff has denied Fordham's account.
Separately, staffers in the office of Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.) went to the clerk of the House and the head of the House Page Board last year after a boy whom Alexander had sponsored as a page complained of receiving overly friendly, though not explicit, e-mails from Foley. Foley was told to stop contacting the boy.
Earlier this year, Alexander raised the issue with House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), head of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Reynolds said he discussed the problem with Hastert, who has said he does not remember the conversation but does not dispute Reynolds' account of it.
In a statement Thursday to CNN, the Louisiana boy's family -- who requested anonymity, citing media harassment -- commended Alexander for responding to their complaints and said they considered their son a hero for coming forward.