WASHINGTON - Rep. Anthony Weiner's behaviour has been "inappropriate" and "a distraction," the White House said Monday as the House returned to work for the first time since eruption of the sexting scandal that has brought calls for the New York Democrat's resignation.
White House spokesman Jay Carney wouldn't say whether President Barack Obama believes Weiner should resign — as other Democratic leaders have said.
Weiner is on a temporary leave of absence, in treatment for an undisclosed disorder at an undisclosed location. He has acknowledged exchanging messages and photos that ranged from sexually suggestive to explicit, with several women online. The latest to surface appeared on the gossip website TMZ.
"The president feels, we feel in the White House, that this is a distraction, obviously," Carney said in response to questions from reporters travelling with the president on Air Force One to North Carolina. "As Congressman Weiner has said himself, his behaviour was inappropriate, his dishonesty was inappropriate. But the president is focused on his job which is getting the economy continuing to grow, creating jobs, and obviously ensuring the safety and security of the American people."
Meanwhile, the No. 2 House Democrat spoke of Weiner's "bizarre and unacceptable behaviour" in sending the inappropriate pictures of himself. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland said Sunday it would be "extraordinarily difficult" for Weiner to be effective in Congress.
And the Republican Party chairman criticized Democratic leaders for not taking a more forceful stand earlier on the affair.
The photos posted Sunday were purportedly taken in the House members' gym and show a shirtless Weiner with a towel around his waist and his hand on his crotch. TMZ said the photos were sent online to at least one woman.
Weiner announced Saturday that he was entering unspecified professional and wanted a leave of absence from Congress.
That announcement came right after House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the national party head, said Weiner must go.
Weiner said at a news conference last Monday that he had lied, previously saying that he had not sent any photos. Pelosi immediately called for an ethics committee investigation. But it was not until the weekend that leaders said he should step down.
Hoyer said the ethics committee process to decide whether Weiner had committed an expellable offence would take time and "I really don't know if we have that time." He said he didn't see how Weiner could stay in office.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Weiner should resign. "We've got important work to do and this is a ridiculous distraction," he said in an appearance with Hoyer on "Face the Nation" on CBS.
Lawmakers marching Sunday in New York's Puerto Rican Day parade were less demanding. "I think it could have been handled better," Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) said when asked whether he stood with Pelosi in calling for Weiner's resignation.
Rangel, who was censured by the House last year for ethics violations, was also asked if he thought it was a good idea for Weiner to take time off to enter treatment.
"He is the one that knows the best, he and his wife," Rangel responded.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) declined to comment any further, saying, "Those of us who have been longtime friends of Anthony are heartbroken, and I'm just going to try to enjoy the parade today."
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus on Sunday criticized Pelosi and other Democrats for not acting sooner. "It seemed to me that for the first 10 days in this circus ... the only job that Nancy Pelosi was interested in saving was Anthony Weiner's," he said.
That drew a sharp retort from Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who accused Republicans of a double standard.
She said that Republican leaders didn't call for the resignation of Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) when he got caught up in a prostitution scandal, and that Priebus had not publicly sought the resignation of former Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who stepped down this year over an affair with a staffer's wife.
Wasserman Schultz said party officials initially gave Weiner "some breathing room" to reach the conclusion that he needed to step down on his own, but decided to toughen their stance Saturday after it became apparent he would not do so.