Washington: A senior Republican US lawmaker faced down demands for his resignation Tuesday, retaining the support of his party leadership after he admitted giving a speech to a racist group.
Representative Steve Scalise, the third-ranked Republican in the House of Representatives, confirmed that he addressed the European-American Unity and Rights Organization in 2002.
The "white nationalist" anti-Semitic EURO group was founded by the notorious former Klu Klux Klan grand wizard and Louisiana politician David Duke.
But Scalise insisted he was not aware of the group`s agenda, saying he spoke there as a Louisiana state lawmaker only to promote his budget proposals.
"One of the many groups that I spoke to regarding this critical legislation was a group whose views I wholeheartedly condemn," he said in a statement.
"It was a mistake I regret, and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold.
"I am very disappointed that anyone would try to infer otherwise for political gain."
The House whip`s attendance at the EURO convention was revealed by Louisiana political blog CenLamar.com based in part on an old posting on the well-known neo-Nazi Internet forum Stormfront.
The Republican Party won last month`s US midterm elections, taking control of the Senate and strengthening its hold on the House for the new Congress starting in January.Democrats seized on the revelations to call on House Speaker John Boehner to sack Scalise from his leadership role.
"It`s hard to believe, given David Duke`s reputation in Louisiana, that somebody in politics in Louisiana wasn`t aware of Duke`s associations with the group and what they stand for," Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas told The Washington Post.
But Boehner threw his support behind Scalise, calling him a "man of high integrity and good character."
"More than a decade ago, Representative Scalise made an error in judgment, and he was right to acknowledge it was wrong and inappropriate," Boehner said.
"He has my full confidence as our whip, and he will continue to do great and important work for all Americans."
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy also backed Scalise.
But Democratic National Committee spokesman Mo Elleithee poured scorn on the idea that Scalise might not have been aware of former Republican candidate Duke`s racist agenda.
"Seriously? He didn`t know?" Elleithee asked.
"The group was named the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, it was founded by David Duke and he was invited by two of Duke`s longtime associates.
"It doesn`t get much more clear than that. Does he not believe that speaking to an anti-Semitic hate group legitimizes them and elevates their racist and divisive existence?"
Republicans won the recent Congressional election with the support of conservative white voters, but analysts warn they will struggle to win over blacks and Hispanics in future presidential races.