WASHINGTON — House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, whose office has been drawing sharp criticism for failing to deal more aggressively with former Rep. Mark Foley's interest in congressional pages, said Tuesday that he would fire anyone on his staff who covered up information about Foley's conduct.
But the beleaguered Hastert continued to stand by his aides as investigations by the FBI and House Ethics Committee moved forward.
And the Illinois Republican, delivering a speech on the economy Tuesday in Aurora, refused to discuss suggestions that he resign as speaker, as new polls showed the GOP's prospects for holding on to control of the House in November have diminished.
"I think ... they've handled [the Foley matter] as well as they should," Hastert said of his aides.
Still, he said, "if anybody's found to have hidden information or covered up information, they really should be gone."
He also said many of Foley's contacts with pages appeared to have occurred after the teenagers left Washington, which made it more difficult for Capitol Hill officials to know of the Florida Republican's misconduct.
Foley resigned his House seat in late September after it was revealed that he sent pages sexually explicit electronic messages. The GOP House leadership cautioned Foley late last year about what have been characterized as "overly friendly" messages to pages, but Hastert has said neither he nor his aides knew then about the sexually explicit ones.
Republican strategists are urging GOP officials to shift attention from the embarrassing case to issues such as economic growth and national security.
But Hastert and other Republicans are dogged by questions about why they didn't investigate Foley's interest in pages more vigorously a year ago.
On Tuesday, Rep. Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican who is retiring this year, defended his response to a page who told him several years ago that he had received e-mails from Foley that made him uncomfortable.
"I was not shown the content of the messages and was not told they were sexually explicit," Kolbe said in a statement. "It was my recommendation that this complaint be passed along to Rep. Foley's office and the clerk who supervised the page program. This was done promptly."
A Kolbe spokeswoman could not say precisely when the former page contacted Kolbe, saying it was between 2000 and 2002.
The scandal remains a hot issue in a number of campaigns nationwide.
In New York, Jack Davis, the Democratic challenger to Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, chairman of the House GOP campaign committee, aired a new television advertisement attacking the incumbent for failing to move aggressively to stop Foley's contact with pages.
"Tom Reynolds knew that Congressman Mark Foley was a predator," says the ad. "What did he do? Tom Reynolds urged Foley to seek reelection."
Reynolds, whose committee oversees the GOP effort to retain its House majority, has said he learned in the spring of Foley's "overly friendly" contacts with pages and informed Hastert about them. But, like Hastert, Reynolds has said he had no knowledge of the sexually explicit messages.
Reynolds has found himself tied to the scandal because his chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, was previously a longtime Foley aide. Fordham, who resigned from Reynolds' office last week, has said he warned Hastert's staff at least three years ago that Foley had inappropriate contacts with pages -- a claim Hastert's office has disputed.
Fordham is scheduled to testify Thursday before the ethics committee, which is investigating how the Foley matter was handled by congressional leaders.Over the weekend, Reynolds launched an ad in his district expressing regret that he had not pressed for a closer look into Foley's conduct. "Nobody's angrier and more disappointed that I didn't catch his lies," Reynolds says of himself.
In Pennsylvania, Republican Rep. Don Sherwood -- who has run an ad apologizing for an extramarital affair -- canceled fundraising appearances by Hastert and Reynolds. GOP candidates in Kentucky and Texas have previously canceled Hastert fundraisers.
Hastert plans to be on hand Thursday when Bush attends a GOP fundraiser in Chicago.