While House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi stopped short of calling for Rep. Anthony Weiner to resign, her demand for an ethics investigation into his online affairs clearly signaled that her Caucus thinks it’s time for him to go.
Democrats said Pelosi’s unprecedented decision to swiftly call for an ethics investigation — and her harsh words for the New York Democrat — has sent a not-so-subtle sign that leadership does not want to see a protracted scandal at a time when Democrats are battling for control of the House.
“From a leadership standpoint, they’ve got to show they forced his hand,” one Democratic consultant said. “It’s so blatant. They don’t want to see something drawn out, and it’s not going to be the majority’s position to resolve this quickly.”
Although Pelosi’s office declined to comment on the matter, Democrats close to the Minority Leader said that when it became clear Weiner had lied not only to his family and the media but also to the entire Democratic Caucus, Pelosi was not going to let him off the hook.
“She wasn’t going to give him a break. There’s just no question about that,” a Democratic source close to Pelosi said.
“We’ve lost some time” in the party’s efforts to hammer Republicans over Medicare, the source added.
Pelosi’s handling of Weiner’s scandal — which centers on a series of online affairs and lewd pictures of himself that he sent to women via Twitter, Facebook and text message — is strikingly different from how she has handled previous instances of Democrats having ethical woes. Weiner admitted Monday that he had inappropriate online relationships with at least six women over three years.
Pelosi on Tuesday officially asked the Ethics Committee to launch an investigation into Weiner’s actions, saying that because the New York Democrat “disclosed conduct which he described as inappropriate … an investigation by the Ethics Committee to determine whether the Rules of the House of Representatives have been violated is warranted.”
Although Pelosi has sent similar letters to the committee in the past regarding Republicans — most notably asking for an investigation into former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) — she has never sent such a request when a Democrat is at the center of the scandal.
In previous scandals, Pelosi has tried to protect Members she is close with including then-Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and her strong ally the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.).
With Weiner, however, Pelosi called for an ethics investigation within an hour of his Monday press conference.
In the case of Rangel, Pelosi had a long personal and political relationship with the New York icon, which in part led to her hesitancy to quickly condemn him over charges of corruption.
But more significantly, Pelosi ultimately decided to back Rangel in response to internal political pressures within the Democratic fold, particularly from the Congressional Black Caucus.
CBC members — as well as other Democrats — were unhappy with how Pelosi had handled the scandal surrounding former Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), who was accused of taking bribes. She forced him to step down from his seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee while he was still under investigation. Additionally, several members of the CBC were also under investigation for a Caribbean trip they took, and the group was feeling besieged by the Ethics panel.
“There were absolutely CBC politics in play. You had a lot of CBC members who were really standing up for the chairman,” a Democratic lobbyist said of the Rangel imbroglio.
Similarly, Pelosi strongly backed Murtha throughout his ethics woes over earmarks. She went so far as to back him over Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.) for the Majority Leader post in 2006 — even as many in her Caucus were distancing themselves from him.
Those close to Pelosi said her support for Murtha was based in large part on simple loyalty. Murtha was one of the key architects behind Pelosi’s rise in leadership and one of her most trusted lieutenants. Throughout multiple investigations regarding earmarks for companies in his district, Murtha maintained his innocence, and Pelosi chose to back him rather than isolate him.
But Weiner is not particularly close to the California Democrat, nor much of the Caucus.
“He’s an independent operator,” a senior Democratic aide said, noting that Weiner has never fallen into either Pelosi’s or Hoyer’s spheres of influence.
“He kind of does his own thing,” one Democratic strategist agreed. “I think it is one of the reasons why he is in this predicament. He doesn’t listen to many of his colleagues, and he doesn’t listen to staff.”
Even in the case of former Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) — who was brought down by allegations of sexual harassment — Pelosi opted to take a decidedly hands-off approach. While she was apprised of his inappropriate conduct with male staff, she ultimately left the handling of the scandal to Hoyer. Massa resigned several days later.
To be sure, Democrats have not always used kid gloves when it comes to those accused of ethics missteps. Democrats in the past have made it a practice to strip committee assignments from Members under federal investigation, but when Pelosi was Speaker, she seemed to struggle to force lawmakers to resign from their seats.
Still, Democrats said they are pleased with how Pelosi has dealt with the Weiner situation.
“I think she’s handled this very well,” Democratic lobbyist John Michael Gonzalez said. “Other than wagging her finger, I don’t know what else she could do.”
“In the minority, we just can’t let these kind of issues weigh us down,” one Democratic lobbyist said. “We’ve got to act quickly.”
Pelosi may be taking a lesson from Speaker John Boehner. The Ohio Republican has had little patience for ethical missteps in his rank and file. Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.), for instance, resigned within hours after shirtless photos that he sent to a woman he met on Craigslist were uncovered in February. While Boehner has said that he did not speak to Lee, it is an example of how GOP lawmakers have moved to try to get away from the “culture of corruption” reputation they gained during DeLay’s tenure.
Boehner hasn’t ousted everyone with ethical problems, however. He did allow freshman Rep. David Rivera (Fla.) to maintain his position as he faced charges of personal and campaign corruption.
Pelosi’s action may be for naught. Weiner has continued to maintain that he will not resign, and ethics experts are undecided over whether his behavior would rise to expulsion from the House.
“It’s going to be a letter of admonition unless they find out more,” said Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “I think they’re going to be stretching. … Every time a staffer picks up a phone to make weekend plans, you can’t have that as a misuse of official resources.”
Additionally, Sloan said it could be “risky” to go after general sexual inappropriateness since there have been allegations against other Members in the past.
Still, ethics lawyer Stefan Passantino noted that the ethics process is political, which could work against Weiner.
“Even if it’s shown that there wasn’t another violation, the mere discredit he’s brought to the House is enough to be a violation,” McKenna Long & Aldridge’s Passantino said. “At the end of the day, the Members tend to look at the public mood and there is a long process gauging how much or how little the public will tolerate depending on who is controlling the House.”
Amanda Becker contributed to this report.