Democrats were only too happy to benefit in the last midterm elections from the uproar over the Republicans' mishandling of sexual misconduct by a GOP congressman. This time around, they're hoping they don't get trapped in a similar net.
The circumstances of Republican Mark Foley's come-ons with former congressional pages in 2006 are not a precise match with those surrounding Democrat Eric Massa's behavior with members of his House staff. But once again, a competitive midterm election year is unfolding in the shadow of an investigation that could determine whether the party in control of Congress ignored unethical behavior by one of their own.
Both Foley of Florida and Massa of New York resigned from the House soon after the scandals surrounding their behavior became public.
But the House Republican leadership responded slowly in 2006 to the Foley matter, feeding the perception that it wished to ignore the problem. Democrats used the case to develop a broader theme that Republicans tolerated a "culture of corruption" and that a Democratic Congress would "drain the swamp."
Can Republicans in 2010 substitute the name Massa for Foley and use the case as one steppingstone to regain control? It's a critical political question, especially if Republicans want a campaign issue beyond their opposition to the new health care law and the usual criticism of Democrats as being for big government and tax-and-spend policies.
The answer depends, in part, on what a newly ramped up House investigation finds, and when in this campaign year it reports its findings. In the meantime, Democrats have decided to leave Massa's seat vacant until November rather than risk losing it in what would have been a high-profile special election months out.
What's established so far is that Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office took no known action when the first red flag about Massa was raised last October. When there was a second red flag in February, though, action by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was swift. The complaints went to the House ethics committee.
Timing is important in politics. Foley, who had sent sexually suggestive messages to former House pages, resigned about five weeks before the 2006 election, and his case was intertwined with the fall campaign.
News that some Massa employees accused their boss of groping — and propositioning — male staff members surfaced in the spring, giving Democrats time to develop a strategy to counter any Republican criticism.
Party leaders can't be blamed for a single member's sexual proclivities. But ignoring them when they involve former and current congressional staff, if not covering them up, is a different matter, and that's what helped sink Republicans in 2006.
A House ethics committee report after the 2006 election found that several GOP leaders, including then-Speaker Dennis Hastert, and top GOP aides did nothing after learning of Foley's suggestive messages to young men who interned in the House as teenagers.
In the Massa case, his chief of staff told a speaker's aide in October that the congressman had problems — an exchange Pelosi's office acknowledges.
The Massa aide pointed out a story about the lawmaker in his hometown newspaper that described Massa's living arrangements with staff members. The Massa aide told the speaker's office that he asked the congressman, who is married, to move out.
Massa's aide also discussed the congressman's use of strong language with his staff.
According to Pelosi aides, the Massa aide never mentioned groping, propositioning or other sexual misconduct. Still, the speaker's office has refused to say what — if any — action was taken.
In February, a different Massa aide brought the sexual misconduct allegations to Hoyer's office. Hoyer demanded that someone on Massa's staff go to the ethics committee with the information, or he would do so himself within 48 hours. One or more Massa employees notified the committee.
Pelosi has said she has no concerns about the Democratic leadership's handling of the sexual misconduct allegations against Massa.
Randy Evans, the lawyer who represented Hastert in the Foley case, said that episode made it clear that congressional leaders no longer can plead the "'I don't know' defense.'"
He said the October conversation between Massa's chief of staff and Pelosi's staff member should have been reported to the ethics committee even if it just focused on allegations of abusive conduct that was not sexual.
"The ethics committee removed the ability to have blind indifference," Evans said. "You can't just look the other way and not be focused on learning more. There's an affirmative responsibility to find out more, ask questions, determine the scope and take appropriate action."
Massa has acknowledged in a TV interview that he had groped a staff member, but he described it as tickling, not sexual behavior.
That remark became a late-night punch line.
At the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, President Barack Obama played the case for chuckles.
"Politics can be a tough business," he said, "but there are times where you just can't help but laugh.
"You know what really tickles me? Eric Massa."
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