Updated: 11:52 a.m.
Saturday’s coordinated push by Democratic leaders to publicly force Rep. Anthony Weiner’s resignation came after days of quiet talks and a final phone call from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who told him his plan to seek treatment was not enough, aides close to the matter told Roll Call.
Pelosi, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) and other leaders had hoped Weiner would come to terms with the reality of the sex scandal and exit gracefully.
But “when it became clear he was going to keep this going, they called him [Saturday] morning individually” to give him a last chance to resign on his own or have the full weight of the Democratic Party brought down on him, a Democratic aide familiar with the situation said.
“Since this story broke, we were giving Congressman Weiner some breathing room to be able to be circumspect, do the right thing, make a decision, reach the conclusion that he needed to step back and step down on his own,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “As of yesterday, when that didn’t happen, it was important to weigh in.”
For Pelosi, the fact that Weiner needed to leave the House had become obvious during his disastrous news conference Monday. Weiner had called Pelosi just before the event to admit he had lied about his online exchanges with six women. Pelosi had bluntly warned the seven-term lawmaker that he needed to come clean with the press, his family and colleagues, and she said that after the news conference they would decide what steps to take next.
But instead of reassuring her that Weiner could easily and quickly weather the controversy, the rambling news conference raised more questions and made clear that the scandal wasn’t going away anytime soon.
Pelosi and Israel were particularly unhappy with the timing of the scandal. Democrats were finally on the offensive against Republicans thanks to Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (Wis.) cost-cutting proposal that included major changes to Medicare. For once, her Caucus was not only relevant but scoring serious points against the GOP.
The problem, aides said, was that Weiner could not be simply forced out. He hadn’t broken any laws or major ethics rules as far as anyone knew. And unlike other scandal-plagued members who have resigned under pressure, such as former Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.), Weiner wasn’t beholden to his party’s infrastructure and fundraising operation. He already has a significant war chest of his own, his own donor network and a national profile with left-leaning activists who can quickly pour millions into his campaign coffers.
“You can’t force someone out” under those circumstances, a Democratic aide said. “You just can’t.”
The only option, aides said, was to find a way to convince Weiner he needed to resign of his own accord.
Pelosi, Israel and other members, including Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), began a behind-the-scenes effort to convince him of that, repeatedly discussing the situation on the phone with Weiner. They argued the party was suffering substantially because of the scandal, that the momentum they had gained from the Medicare fight was evaporating thanks to the explicit messages and pictures he had sent to the women. They argued that drawing out the scandal was having a terrible effect not only on him but also his family, particularly his wife, Huma Abedin.
Two aides said that while politics weighed heavily on Pelosi’s mind, she was genuinely concerned for Weiner and his family. She and others felt his behavior indicated he has serious problems and they believed he needed to get help.
Still, top Democrats “systematically increased the pressure” on Weiner into late last week.
Aides said that during conversations with Israel and others, Weiner acknowledged the enormity of the problem but held out hope that he could muscle through the scandal. As last week ended, party leaders agreed the time was approaching for a unified and public push to get Weiner to resign.
So, when news broke Friday that Weiner had sent messages to a 17-year-old Delaware high school girl, “the decision was already made” to give him an ultimatum, the senior Democratic aide said.
Saturday morning, Pelosi and Israel again called Weiner, and in separate conversations with him explicitly warned they were preparing statements calling for him to step down. And while Weiner said he was going to a rehabilitation center, Pelosi and Israel told him it was not enough.
At this point, it is unclear what else, if anything, Pelosi and her colleagues can do. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer called Weiner’s behavior “bizarre” and “unacceptable” during an interview Sunday, but the Maryland Democrat acknowledged that a formal process to remove him from Congress would take time. “I really don’t know that we have that time,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Early this week, Weiner is expected to submit a formal request for a leave of absence — an archaic rule of the House dating back to when lawmakers were paid by the day and docked pay for missing votes. Hoyer hopes Weiner would use the time to consider resigning.
“It is my understanding Mr. Weiner has indicated he wants to take a leave. I would hope he does so. I hope he reflects upon whether or not he can proceed. It seems to me extraordinarily difficult that he can proceed to represent his constituents in an effective way given the circumstances,” he said. Ryan, who appeared with Hoyer on “Face the Nation,” called the scandal a “ridiculous distraction” and said Weiner should step down.
A leave of absence would likely keep the scandal in the public eye for at least several more days, and there remains the prospect that more women or more details will emerge in the days ahead. On Sunday morning, TMZ.com published photographs of Weiner in various states of undress that the website said were taken in the House gym. Although not as explicit as some of the other pictures that have surfaced, they are the sort of embarrassing revelations that leadership had hoped to avoid.
Weiner seemed to indicate that he could resign after his stint in rehab, but that’s of little comfort to Democrats who want the scandal behind them.
“We’ll have to take his word for it,” a Democratic aide said.
Kyle Trygstad contributed to this report.