WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama ramped up pressure on Monday on Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner to step down, calling his Internet sex scandal a distraction from the work that needs to be done in Washington.
“I can tell you that if it was me, I would resign,” Obama, in his first comments on the matter, said in an interview with NBC News.
Weiner, 46, on Saturday defied mounting calls from other leaders of his own party to step down after his belated admission that he sent online messages and lewd photos of himself to at least a half dozen women and lied about it.
The congressman from New York said through an aide over the weekend that rather than immediately step down he would instead seek a leave of absence from the House of Representatives and treatment at an undisclosed facility before deciding what to do.
“We think this is a distraction obviously from the important business that this president needs to conduct and Congress needs to conduct,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One headed to North Carolina to talk to business leaders about invigorating the U.S. economy.
Later Monday, Obama told NBC: “He’s embarrassed himself, he’s acknowledged that, he’s embarrassed his wife and his family.”
“Public service is exactly that, it’s a service to the public,” Obama said. “When you get to the point where — because of various personal distractions, you can’t serve as effectively as you need to at the time when people are worrying about jobs, and their mortgages, and paying the bills — then you should probably step back.”
With unemployment at 9.1 percent, Obama has been struggling to convince Americans his policies are pulling the economy out of the doldrums. Obama’s trip on Monday to North Carolina was part of a stepped-up effort by the White House to show voters that he remains focused on job creation. But the Weiner saga continues to generate a lot of coverage by U.S. news media.
With the White House accusing Weiner of being an unwarranted distraction for the president, the fiery liberal may find it difficult to stay on.
Weiner, who was re-elected last November with 61 percent of the vote, has said his behavior was wrong but that he violated no laws.
It is unclear what, if anything, Congress can do to force Weiner to step down. A poll last week showed that most of his constituents think he should remain in his job.
The full House could vote to expel Weiner. But such punishment would be highly unusual unless it found he violated criminal law, not just the chamber’s rules.
Last year, the House censured another New York Democrat, Representative Charles Rangel, after its ethics panel convicted him of 11 rule violations, including failure to pay taxes on his beach villa in the Dominican Republic.
Members of the House of Representatives began returning on Monday from a week-long recess, and the chamber’s Democrats were to meet on Tuesday, with Weiner likely a chief topic.
A Democratic aide said they could pass a resolution urging Weiner to resign. While it would not be binding, it would show that Weiner faces a solid wall of opposition in his own party.
The Democratic caucus could also strip Weiner of his committee assignments and even tell him that he is no longer welcome at their meetings, the aide said. He now serves on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Traditionally, all it takes to get a leave of absence, as Weiner plans to do, is for a member to formally request one from their chamber’s party leader, in this case, House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi has requested an ethics investigation to determine what, if any, House rules Weiner may have broken. Such a probe could take months, even up to a year.
A veteran congressional aide familiar with the chamber’s rules said he could not recall a case where a member was denied a leave of absence.
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; editing by Cynthia Osterman