WASHINGTON — Pursed lips. Frosty glares. Polite demurrals. Icy silence.
Women in politics are grappling with the distinctly unfunny choice of restraining themselves or letting rip what they really think about Rep. Anthony Weiner’s X-rated online conduct and whether he belongs in Congress.
They’ll be vexed by the question awhile longer because the 46-year-old Democrat from New York City told the New York Post on Thursday he won’t resign.
The scandal presents a maddening choice for these female leaders, none shy, between speaking out or keeping quiet about behavior that, at best, is disrespectful of women.
“You’re right, I don’t like” questions about Weiner, Sen. Dianne Feinstein said with a smile.
Feinstein, D-Calif., was elected in 1992, known as “the Year of the Woman.” She said she’s shocked and saddened by the matter, which grew worse as the week went on, and she wished she could say something lighthearted about it.
Does she think Weiner should resign? “I’m not getting into that,” she demurred.
It was an apt illustration of the bind in which female lawmakers, particularly Democrats, find themselves as Weiner’s tawdry saga unfolds. They represent a party trying to position itself as the best choice for women in the lead-up to the 2012 congressional and presidential elections, yet the most senior among them have not called outright for Weiner’s resignation.
Most, in fact, have said nothing publicly at all.
Weiner admitted four days ago that he had Tweeted sexually charged messages and photos to at least six women and lied about it.
How to answer the obvious question — should he quit? — remains a frustrating one for Congress’ women, more so the longer Weiner clings to office.
“My sense is they want him to make the decision himself,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “That is the way the institution works.”
Historically, that’s true, because party leaders don’t like to be sullied by the unfortunate behavior of their troops. Leaders don’t want to risk their own clout on a public call for resignation that might be ignored.
That’s a real possibility with Weiner, who’s brash and intractable and a robust fundraiser.
Weiner told the Post he’s not resigning and he was going to try to make amends with his family and constituents and, perhaps, get some work done.
There’s a smaller chance that he could ride out the scandal and win re-election despite any attempts, emphasized by Democrats this week, to redistrict him out of Congress when new political lines are drawn for 2012.
A new poll found that 56 percent of voters in his district, which covers parts of the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, said he shouldn’t resign. One-third of those surveyed in the NY1-Marist poll said he should quit and 12 percent said they were unsure.
In private phone calls, Democrats have made clear to Weiner that staying would be tough on him and his wife of a year, Huma Abedin, who’s pregnant with the couple’s first child.
On Wednesday, Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., became the first of a half-dozen Democrats to say he should leave office.
For Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul, the newly elected successor to a New York Republican who resigned after the release of a shirtless photo he sent to a woman he met online, Weiner’s situation is “probably the definition of irony.” Hochul stopped short of saying he should quit.
The top women in the party and Congress have not gone as far as Schwartz.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, the first woman to serve as House speaker, said in a statement that she’s “disappointed” in Weiner and called for an ethics committee investigation.
Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the new chief of the Democratic National Committee has said nothing, but concurs with Pelosi, a spokesman said.
Her predecessor as head of the party, Tim Kaine, a Senate candidate and former Virginia governor, has said Weiner should step down.
Female senators weren’t eager to discuss Weiner.
Sen. Patty Murray, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said tersely Wednesday that “of course” Weiner’s troubles make it harder to elect Democrats to Congress.
Murray said Thursday she thought she was answering a different question. Asked about the pressure on Weiner to resign, the Washington Democrat pointed out that he’s a member of the House.
“I don’t even know him,” Murray said.
Associated Press writer Carolyn Thompson in Amherst, N.Y., and Kimberly Hefling contributed to this report.