WASHINGTON — Embattled Rep. Anthony Weiner said Saturday he's taking a short leave of absence and seeking professional treatment, as a host of frustrated Democratic leaders called for him to leave office, saying the "sordid affair" has become a distraction for the party.
It was unknown how long the New York Democrat would take, but it was clear that the temporary break was not enough to satisfy Democrats who were hoping a coordinated show of disapproval from top Democrats would force him to step down.
"The behavior he has exhibited is indefensible and Representative Weiner's continued service in Congress is untenable," said Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida. She was joined by Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Steve Israel of New York, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who all issued stern statements calling on Weiner's immediate resignation.
"Anthony's inappropriate behavior has become an insurmountable distraction to the House and our work for the American people," Israel said. His predecessor, Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, echoed the call, saying Weiner's "repeated violation of the public trust is unacceptable. He can best advance the issues he fought for by resigning immediately."
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An aide to Pelosi noted that the congresswoman was aware of Weiner's intent to take a leave of absence when she called on him to "seek that help without the pressures of being a member of Congress."
The mounting calls for Weiner's resignation came as police in New Castle County, Del., opened an investigation Friday into Weiner's electronic communication with a 17-year-old high school student.
Weiner, questioned Saturday by a throng of reporters who were following him as he ran errands, said he did nothing wrong. New Castle County Police in a statement said detectives had interviewed the teen "and she has made no disclosure of criminal activity, no inappropriate contact by the congressman."
Weiner's office in a statement said the congressman left Saturday "to seek professional treatment to focus on becoming a better husband and healthier person."
It said Weiner would request a "short leave of absence" from the House "so that he can get evaluated and map out a course of treatment to make himself well.
"Congressman Weiner takes the views of his colleagues very seriously," the statement said. "And he has determined that he needs this time to get healthy and make the best decision possible for himself, his family and his constituents."
Even before the news of the teenager emerged, Democrats were growing increasingly frustrated by Weiner and the scandal stemming from the married congressman's propensity for sexting and sending lewd photos of himself over the Internet to women he met on social networking sites.
Democratic aides said Saturday that the DNC and the congressional committee had decided Weiner had to leave even before news of the Delaware incident surfaced. They said discussions between top leaders resulted in a Saturday morning deadline for Weiner to voluntarily step down — or to face mounting pressure from his colleagues.
Weiner has said he's staying on the job, and some appeared to give him some room. House Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn of South Carolina said Saturday that he was standing by his earlier comments that the full Democratic caucus should take up the issue when it returns to Washington Monday.
However, a majority of voters in Weiner's Queens-Brooklyn congressional district think he should stay in office.
"It's New York City. This isn't Bible Belt tolerance; that's not a New York thing," said Robert Liff, a New York Democratic political operative. "We're a live-and-let-live city."
Washington apparently is not. Before Saturday's calls, a chorus of influential party voices was already calling for Weiner to leave to avoid further embarrassment.
"They would like him to resign because he's a distraction from the discussion of the Ryan budget," said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York Democratic political consultant, referring to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and his proposed 2012 federal budget.
Weiner's travails have been a godsend for Republicans, who've been anxious to shift talk away from Ryan's controversial plan to overhaul Medicare.
GOP lawmakers and campaign organizations have used Weiner to go on the offensive, publicly challenging Democrats who've taken campaign contributions from Weiner to return them.
Still, the GOP attacks and the Democratic drumbeat for a resignation aren't likely to be enough — at least for now — to force Weiner to quit.
A poll released Thursday by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion and cable television's NY1 found that 56 percent of registered voters in Weiner's district don't think he should quit, and 33 percent think he should. About 12 percent of the voters said they weren't sure.
As for Weiner's re-election prospects in 2012, 30 percent of the registered voters in his district who were polled said they'd vote for him, 31 percent said they wouldn't and 38 percent were undecided. The margin of error is 4.5 percentage points.
"Congressman Weiner's constituents are drawing a line between his ethical conduct and professional judgment," said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Institute for Public Opinion. "As for his re-election prospects, that's still very much up in the air."
Maurice Carroll, the director of Quinnipiac University's Polling Institute and a former New York political reporter and columnist, said all the anxiety over the Weiner scandal was typical media and Washington Beltway handwringing, which meant almost nothing in the Big Apple.
"Bill Clinton would have been an ex-president if you read the Washington headlines," Carroll said, referring to former President Bill Clinton's White House affair with Monica Lewinsky. "What he (Weiner) did was sleazy, and really adolescent, but will they throw him out? The Washington Post editorial page can't fire him; The New York Times can't fire him. That's what elections are for."
But just because New Yorkers have a different take on Weiner's scandal from that of Washington and other U.S. cities doesn't mean he's home free in his hometown in terms of paying a price for his sex-tinged social media escapades.
The scandal probably kills any chance of Weiner achieving his goal of becoming the mayor of New York. Another Marist-NY1 poll, released Tuesday, found that 56 percent of New York City registered voters don't want him to run for mayor, 25 percent want him to and 19 percent weren't sure.
Weiner has amassed almost $4 million in anticipation of a run to succeed independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg, according to the New York State Board of Elections. Weiner's congressional campaign war chest had only $365,670 in cash on hand as of March 31, according to the Federal Election Commission.
"There will be no Mayor Weiner in 2013," said Sheinkopf, the New York political consultant. "That's out."
Carroll said Weiner's foes would have to dynamite him out of his congressional district, and the New York State Assembly may do just that. The state has to shed two of its 29 House seats to reflect population shifts based on 2010 census data.
The state assembly, which will decide on the new lines, may view carving out a district with a disgraced and wounded downstate elected official as easy pickings.
"New York loses two congressional districts in the next round," Carroll said. "You've got to bet Weiner's disappears."
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