WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House said Monday that Rep. Anthony Weiner's conduct has been inappropriate and distracting, while the House Ethics Committee started a preliminary inquiry that could bloom into a full investigation if the New York Democrat ignores mounting pressure to resign.
"The president feels, we feel in the White House, that this is a distraction, obviously," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in response to reporters' questions aboard Air Force One as the president traveled to North Carolina. "As Congressman Weiner has said himself, his behavior was inappropriate, his dishonesty was inappropriate."
Carney wouldn't say whether President Barack Obama believes Weiner should resign for sending sexually charged photos and messages online to several women. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has called for Weiner to quit, as did several other Democrats including party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
House officials said the ethics inquiry is not yet extensive, and committee leaders have not indicated whether they will order a more intensive staff investigation. The officials requested anonymity because the committee has not announced the staff inquiry.
If Weiner does resign, the committee would no longer have jurisdiction to investigate him. If he remains in Congress, Chairman Jo Bonner of Alabama and ranking Democrat Linda Sanchez of California could name a four-member subcommittee to conduct a more thorough investigation. That could lead to an ethics trial.
The ethics committee is not designed as a quick reaction force when a scandal erupts. An investigation could last months, even longer, if the case became legally complicated and Weiner decided to mount a full defense.
If the committee decides that a member violated the rules, its options include issuing a written rebuke, recommending the House vote to censure the lawmaker or recommending expelling the member by a two-thirds majority.
Congress returned to work Monday as Weiner began a temporary leave of absence from the House, seeking treatment for an undisclosed disorder at an undisclosed location. House members can ask leaders for leaves of absence, which are usually routinely granted.
The Weiner scandal, heading into its third week, has been a huge embarrassment to Democrats who are eager to put the controversy behind them.
Weiner is expected to be a dominant topic when House Democrats, who have been wrestling with how to put the Weiner scandal behind them as soon as possible, meet Tuesday morning. Democrats could try to oust Weiner from the caucus or try to strip him of his committee assignments on the Judiciary and Energy and Commerce panels.
Weiner's vow to seek treatment and to work to repair his tattered reputation did little to ease the furor.
Republicans suggested that Pelosi was not tough enough on Weiner. Michael Steel, a press aide to Speaker John Boehner, said in an e-mail that Weiner's intention to seek a leave of absence "puts the focus" on Pelosi.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who has called for Weiner to resign, said if Weiner does not leave, Democrats should consider taking away his committee assignments.