WASHINGTON - Embattled House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert nixed plans to headline a mid-October fund-raiser in New York with Mayor Bloomberg - but will stand with President Bush on Thursday in Chicago.
The Bush White House will lend more support to Hastert when spokesman Tony Snow travels to his northern Illinois district next Saturday to headline the speaker's annual "mega-dinner" fund-raiser.
Hastert scrambled last week to stop political bleeding - with calls for him to step down in the wake of how he handled the Mark Foley cyberspace sex scandal. The speaker said he was clueless there was any problem with Foley sexually preying on pages until a week ago. His critics say Hastert's staffers knew for more than a year of a Foley problem and were part of a cover-up.
Clueless or cover-up - it's potentially politically toxic this close to an election. On Friday, evening, the Washington Post's Web site was reporting that Scott Palmer, Hastert's chief of staff, met with Foley to discuss complaints about Foley's interactions with pages well before the speaker says his aides took any action. The report is based on an account by a current congressional staff member, the Post says.
Hastert, a Plano Republican, spent Friday calling conservative opinion makers but decided against doing more talk radio. The strategic communication assessment was made while mainstream media outlets were still running and commenting on remarks he made in Batavia on Thursday; he could not improve on that performance.
Still worried that he is a liability, Hastert is revising what had been a packed October campaign schedule. Thursday, I reported exclusively that Hastert had about 30 events penciled in for the weeks before the Nov. 7 elections. After the Foley scandal broke, Rep. Ron Lewis (R-Ky.) scratched a Tuesday fund-raiser with the speaker in Kentucky. I was told that was not going to be an isolated instance. Now the speaker is canceling dates. Hastert was to travel to a Manhattan home Oct. 17 to be the draw with Bloomberg for a reception to benefit Rep. John Sweeney, a Republican who represents an upstate New York district.
Sweeney's chief of staff, Sean O'Neill, told me Friday that the speaker's advance office called to cancel either late Thursday or Friday. "It is our understanding he will not be coming to our event on the 17th," O'Neill said. I asked if the Sweeney campaign asked Hastert to withdraw, and O'Neill said, "We did not."
When I asked Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean about the cancellation, he said, "We go where people want us to go." When Hastert plays on his home court in Illinois, he remains in safe political territory. Bonjean told me Hastert will stand with Bush at Thursday's fund-raising event in Chicago for GOP contenders in the two biggest House races in Illinois, both in the suburbs - state Sen. Peter Roskam (R-Wheaton) running against Democrat Tammy Duckworth, and David McSweeney challenging Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.).
(Former President Bill Clinton hits Chicago on Oct. 23 for the Democrats.) Bush phoned Hastert on Thursday night to bolster him. Vice President Dick Cheney, in an interview with the Washington Examiner, also gave him a boost and told him not to quit. (Cheney and Hastert are close; one of Hastert's sons once worked in Cheney's office.)
Snow, in an unusual move for White House press secretaries, will hit the fund-raising circuit. His stop next week in St. Charles is at an event aimed at district residents.
SHIMKUS TO STAY ON PAGE PANEL; HIRES LAWYER
l Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) told me Thursday he has no plans to quit as chairman of the House Page Board and would not be upset if House leaders decided on someone new to take on the post. However, "I am not going to leave based on political attacks." Sen. Dick Durbin's press secretary, Joe Shoemaker, issued a statement Friday renewing Durbin's call for Shimkus to step aside. That came after Shimkus said in interviews that Durbin and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) owed him an apology, suggesting he mishandled the Foley situation when it was brought to him in November, 2005.
(Durbin was traveling as part of an official congressional delegation to Afghanistan and Iraq.) Shimkus said he has hired a lawyer to represent him as probes of Foley, a Florida Republican who quit the House a week ago, are now under way by the Justice Department, Florida authorities and the House ethics panel.