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The congressman made drug admission -- but the speaker could decide his future

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
updated 9:41 PM EST, Thu November 21, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Boehner on Rep. Radel: "The issue is between he and his family and his constituents"
  • Boehner has been praised by congressional watchdogs for not tolerating misconduct
  • Radel is seeking treatment for substance abuse but retains his office
Rep. Radel: "I want to be a better man"
Rep.Trey Radel 'I'm sorry'

Washington (CNN) -- House Speaker John Boehner has a liability on his hands.

Rep. Trey Radel, R-Florida, has taken a leave of absence after pleading guilty to misdemeanor cocaine possession.

Boehner has been praised by congressional watchdogs for having little tolerance for derelict members of Congress.

But for now, Radel is retaining his seat.

"I believe that members of Congress should be held to the highest ethical standard," Boehner told reporters Thursday. "The issue is between he and his family and his constituents."

Other members of Congress caught in compromising situations heard a similar refrain from the speaker.

After Rep. Chris Lee, R-New York, was caught soliciting women with shirtless selfies on Craigslist in 2011, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), said that Boehner "serves as a ruthless judge and jury within his party when it comes to the extracurricular activities of members of his conference."

While Boehner insisted that it was Lee's decision, the New Yorker immediately resigned his seat.

Boehner said, "members should be held to the highest ethical standard."

That's not the only time Boehner has given this canned response. When Republican Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana admitted to having an affair with a staffer in 2010, Boehner's spokesman at the time said "he will hold our members to the highest ethical standards."

And when Republican Vito Fossella of New York was arrested for drunk driving in 2008 and then admitted to having a child in an extramarital affair, Boehner said his political future is a "decision between he, his family and his constituents."

Lee and Souder resigned immediately. Fossella did not seek re-election, which was just a month out. While Boehner took no credit for the members' decision to step down, the situation behind the scenes is likely much different.

Radel's office confirmed to CNN on Thursday that the congressman has checked into a drug treatment facility.

His office released this statement: "Today, I checked myself into a facility to seek treatment and counseling. It is my hope, through this process, I will come out a better man. I will work hard to gain back the trust and support of my constituents, friends and most importantly, my family."

While Radel retains his seat, Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, said she doesn't "see how he survives this."

Boehner and the Republican Party should have little tolerance for Radel, who is the first member of Congress since at least the 1980s to be caught with drugs, Sloan said.

"It's surprising that they haven't pushed Radel out yet," Sloan said.

A senior House GOP aide said Boehner is coming down lightly on Radel because his is an issue of "addiction and substance abuse."

Sloan immediately dismissed that justification. She said cocaine use is "pretty bad" and that blaming drug use on alcohol addiction is "irrelevant."

Members of Congress are "supposed to uphold the law," she said.

Radel, who has been in office for 11 months, is a first-time politician.

The former TV journalist-turned conservative radio talk show host represents the southwest Florida coastal cities of Fort Myers and Naples.

Radel's future comes with political risks.

Radel represents a safe Republican district. It contains the fewest registered Democrats in the state and he won election with 62% of the vote.

If he stays, voters in the popular retirement community might not be forgiving. With the election a year away, there's still plenty of time for Republicans to find a replacement. Or the party could stay out of it and wait to see whether a Republican challenges Radel in the primary, assuming he decides to run again.

Who is Trey Radel?

Back in Washington, the congressman responsible for getting Republicans elected to the House, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, offered a noncommittal response about Radel's future.

"He's going to need to explain what happened and then make some decisions," Walden, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Wednesday.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Radel's drug use shows "inconsistency" within the Republican Party, which is pushing drug-testing of food stamp recipients, a position Radel voted for this summer.

Ethics problems are not confined to the Republican House.

Democrats Eric Massa of New York quickly left office after he was accused of sexual harassment, as did Anthony Weiner for posting lewd pictures of himself on Twitter.

There appears to be a little more tolerance in the Senate. Republican Mike Crapo of Idaho still holds his seat after pleading guilty to drunk driving and Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, remains in office after his involvement with a prostitute.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, resigned amid an ethics investigation that involved an extramarital affair. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, also resigned after alleging soliciting a police officer for sex in an airport bathroom.

CNN's Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report

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