Democratic leaders face a no-win situation this week as the House convenes for the first time since Rep. Anthony Weiner acknowledged sending sexual photographs and text messages to a half-dozen women over the past three years.
Reps. Nancy Pelosi of California, Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Steve Israel of New York — the House minority leader, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, respectively — failed to force Weiner from office after going public Saturday with previously private demands that he resign from the seat he has held since 1999.
Still, several House leaders — Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut and Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra of California — pointedly did not join the choreographed team push.
None of them has directly called for Weiner to resign, though Hoyer did say Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he hopes “he would make that judgment.”
It was striking to some Democrats that Pelosi called on Weiner to resign, because he had supported her in leadership elections. Now Weiner, who’s always been a bit of a loose cannon, may feel free to make trouble for Democratic leaders if he stays in office.
“She fired the shot. And if he doesn’t resign, she fired and missed,” said a Democratic lawmaker. “He’s not the kind of guy you want out there doing [stuff]” to retaliate.
So during a weekend in which it was revealed that Weiner had nonsexual online interaction with a 17-year-old girl in Delaware, new self-snapped pictures of him grabbing his towel-wrapped private parts surfaced online, and he said he would take a leave of absence to seek professional treatment, Democrats are divided over what to do about a salacious distraction that’s now in its third week.
Although few are directly defending Weiner, many progressives believe that a new standard is being applied to the New York congressman, who has not been accused of breaking any laws. And it seems likely that some of his Democratic colleagues will make a similar case behind closed doors.
When Democrats congregate, some lawmakers are going to argue “why are we cannibalizing ourselves,” said a senior Democratic aide. “Plus, he’s not going anywhere, so we just look like a bunch of idiots.”
After all, many members of Congress have survived much more serious incidents of sexual misconduct — not to mention sins of corruption and malfeasance — with few urging them to give up an office to which they were duly elected. Recent polls by Marist University suggest Weiner’s constituents — and New Yorkers more broadly — don’t believe he should resign.
But Democratic leaders want the Weiner problem — and Weiner himself — to disappear, in large part because his domination of the news prevents the party from messaging effectively on other issues, including the economy and Republican efforts to overhaul the Medicare program.
Democratic sources say leaders communicated with each other throughout last week as they tried to figure out how best to get Weiner to step aside on his own. Patrick Gaspard, the former White House political director, was the point man for the Democratic National Committee, which is President Barack Obama’s political arm.
On Saturday, Israel and Pelosi spoke with Weiner to urge him to resign. When he refused, they, along with Wasserman Schultz, released statements demanding his resignation.
Instead, Weiner said publicly what he had indicated privately: He will try to ride out the storm by leaving the House while he seeks treatment and evaluates his options. His embarrassment, though, was heightened Sunday when the website TMZ.com posted a series of 11 photographs of him, purportedly in the House gym, showing him in various stages of preening, undress and genital-groping.
His wife, Huma Abedin, is said to be in favor of him hanging onto the seat. But she was traveling abroad with her boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when new details, including her pregnancy, became public.
Short of expulsion by the House — a nearly unthinkable outcome given what is currently known — Weiner is in sole control of whether he serves out his term. Before urging him to resign, Pelosi had avoided the question by endorsing a House Ethics Committee investigation into his activities.
But as Hoyer noted on CBS Sunday, that wouldn’t happen quickly. “Any process, judicial process, through the Ethics Committee is going to take time,” he said. “I really don’t know that we have that time.”
While Hoyer stopped short of demanding Weiner resign, he made clear he saw that as the appropriate course of action.
“I would hope that Mr. Weiner would use this opportunity to reflect on whether he can effectively proceed,” Hoyer said. “I don’t see how he can, and I hope he would make that judgment.”
But Clyburn said in a Saturday statement, “I stand by my comments from last week that the full caucus should address this issue when we meet next week.”
Larson endorsed the ethics panel approach, but neither he nor Becerra has called on Weiner to resign. And their spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday.
House Democrats could punish Weiner by stripping him of his committee assignments or expelling him from the caucus, but that would set a precedent for passing judgment without trial that could make many lawmakers uncomfortable.
Still, that possibility, along with each member’s personal political considerations and the needs of the party, are sure to be weighed in formal and informal discussions of the matter when the House returns this week.
The party’s top leaders already have taken their shots.