WASHINGTON -- The House ethics committee opened a broad investigation yesterday into the sex scandal surrounding the congressional page system, a furor that has ended the political career of one lawmaker and jeopardized the leadership position of House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Hastert, at a news conference in his home district of Illinois, rejected calls that he resign as speaker in the face of criticism that his office reacted too slowly to the first signs of a problem.
At the same time, he moved to quell the controversy with a pointed statement accepting responsibility for the handling of the matter, which came to light with revelations that Republican Rep. Mark Foley of Florida 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 from Congress last Friday after ABC News questioned him about two sets of explicit messages.
As Hastert offered a note of contrition and the two parties joined in the ethics investigation, partisan tensions continued.
Republicans implied that Democrats were behind the timing of the scandal's emergence and accused House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California of blocking Hastert's plan to appoint former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh to review the page program.
ABC News reported yesterday that three more former pages had come forward with accounts of receiving sexually explicit instant messages and e-mails from Foley.
A GOP-friendly Web site, the Drudge Report, had published allegations earlier yesterday 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 yesterday told ABC.
Several Republicans said they did not believe that the ethics investigation and Hastert's apology would tamp down the controversy over the scandal and questions about how GOP leaders handled it - especially in light of a charge earlier this week by Foley's former top aide, Kirk Fordham, that members of Hastert's staff had been warned of potential problems far earlier than they have acknowledged.
Some GOP leaders issued statements of support for Hastert in a concerted effort to close the divisions that have emerged in the party's upper ranks.
But most House Republicans remained silent, and some strategists confided that they believed the party and its leaders are still not out of the woods.
White House spokesman Tony Snow expressed doubt 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 IMs 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 by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct will be a test of the ethics panel's ability to rise above its partisan paralysis of 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," Reps. Doc Hastings of Washington, the committee chairman, and Howard L. Berman of California, the panel's top Democrat, said 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 yesterday by the FBI, which is conducting a separate inquiry. Hastert's chief of staff has denied Fordham's account.
Separately, staff members in the office of Rep. Rodney Alexander, a Louisiana Republican, went to the clerk of the House and the head of the House Page Board last year after a boy that Alexander had sponsored as a page complained of receiving overly friendly, although not explicit, e-mail from Foley. Foley was told to stop contacting the youth.
Earlier this year, Alexander raised the issue with House Majority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio and Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, 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 yesterday 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.