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Facing untimely resignations, an unpopular war and a troubling 2008 election landscape, Senate Republicans didn’t need another headache this week.
But they got one anyway when Sen. Larry Craig vowed Thursday to serve out the last 15 months of his term, despite a court ruling that left intact his guilty plea in a sex sting operation.
The Idaho Republican’s decision gives his GOP colleagues two unpleasant choices. They can resume pressuring him to leave, and risk being seen as disloyal politicians who go harder on alleged homosexual misdeeds than on heterosexual wrongdoings.
Or they can basically ignore him for months, and endure more TV comics’ taunts about a conservative senator convicted in a case involving public bathroom stalls.
Judging from comments in the first hours after Craig’s announcement, Republican senators seemed unsure exactly where to land. Outright confrontation with Craig, however, seems unlikely.
Five weeks ago, Craig announced his intent to resign Sept. 30 if he could not have his guilty plea rescinded. But Craig, who bridled at colleagues’ not-so-subtle hints to leave, reneged on the deal Thursday.
“I have seen that it is possible for me to work here effectively,” he said in a statement. He vowed not to seek a fourth term in November 2008, and the seat is likely to stay in Republican hands.
But his continued presence in the Senate obviously annoys Republicans facing tough campaigns in a year in which GOP scandals are emerging as a Democratic theme.
“Senator Craig gave us his word” that he would resign by Sept. 30 if he could not overturn the guilty plea, said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who chairs the GOP campaign committee overseeing next year’s Senate elections. “I wish he would stick to his word.”
“It’s embarrassing for the Senate, it’s embarrassing for his party,” Ensign said. Asked if Craig’s staying would be a distraction for the party, Ensign said: “it may be a personal distraction for me.”
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who faces a tough re-election campaign next year in a state where opposition to the Iraq war is strong, spoke with reporters Thursday before Craig announced his plans to stay and fight.
“I would hope that he would live up to what he said he would do — not put the Senate through the wringer on this, respect the institution,” Coleman said. “Clearly, his ability to serve his people was severely compromised.”
Some Republicans feel that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., went too far in late August when he called Craig’s actions that led to his arrest “unforgivable.”
Commentators and activist groups contrasted the reaction to the welcome that GOP leaders gave Sen. David Vitter, D-La., after he apologized for his phone number turning up in a list of clients for an alleged call-girl operation.
McConnell had little to say Thursday. “That whole matter is before the Senate Ethics Committee, and will be dealt with by Senator Craig and the ethics committee,” he told reporters.
Craig, 62, was arrested June 11 in a men’s room in the Minneapolis airport by an undercover officer. The officer said Craig exhibited behavior consistent with seeking a sexual encounter.
Craig said he had panicked when arrested, and pleaded guilty by mail on Aug. 1 to disorderly conduct because an Idaho newspaper had been aggressively investigating allegations that he was gay. Craig says he is not gay.
His arrest and guilty plea were reported Aug. 27 by Roll Call.
In September, Craig hired a high-profile legal team and asked that his guilty plea be rescinded, which would clear the way for a trial.
But in Minnesota on Thursday, Hennepin County Judge Charles Porter ruled: “Because the defendant’s plea was accurate, voluntary and intelligent, and because the conviction is supported by the evidence … the defendant’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea is denied.”
Craig, who did not show up for a Senate vote late Thursday after issuing his statement, said he was disappointed, and suggested he might appeal. “I am innocent of the charges against me,” he said in the statement.
While most Republican senators were mum Thursday, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, again spoke up for his friend. Craig “has the right to pursue his legal options as does any citizen, and I support his effort,” Crapo said.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who had encouraged Craig to try to overturn his plea, told reporters that his colleague had the right to stay in office. “Disorderly conduct is not moral turpitude,” Specter said, “and is not a basis for leaving the Senate.”
“I don’t think it reflects on the party at all,” Specter said. “Larry Craig is an individual. He doesn’t represent the party or any other individual senator or any Republican. The conduct which is described here at worst is disorderly conduct. I don’t know what his sexual preference is. It’s not relevant to the issue in any respect.”
Republicans are bracing for a difficult election. Democrats believe they have solid chances to replace retiring GOP senators in Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico and possibly Nebraska. Republican incumbents facing tough fights include Coleman, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Susan Collins of Maine.
Meanwhile, the bipartisan Senate ethics panel is gearing up for possible hearings into Craig’s case, a step requested by Republican leaders when they were trying to persuade the senator to step down.
If the hearings go forward, and are televised, it will mark another setback for a party aching for some good news.