Craig launches drive to save his job; ethics panel refuses to call off complaint

Idaho StatesmanSeptember 5, 2007 

Will he quit, or won’t he?

Sen. Larry Craig’s contradictory statements about his “intent” to resign Sept. 30 left fellow Senate Republicans puzzled today and spread confusion from Washington, D.C. to Boise.

National GOP leaders said they still take Craig at his word that he’ll leave office. The Senate ethics committee quickly rejected Craig’s plea today to call off its investigation of his behavior in the airport men’s room sex sting that led Craig to plead guilty to disorderly conduct. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he still considers Craig headed for the door.

“My view remains what I said last Saturday,” McConnell said. “I thought he made the correct decision — difficult, but correct decision — to resign. That would still be my view today.”

Craig said Tuesday that he would reconsider his resignation if he gets a Minnesota court to toss his Aug. 8 guilty plea in the June 11 arrest for lewd behavior.

He found an ally today in Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

“I support whatever Larry does,” Crapo said. “Everybody has a right to try to vindicate themselves.”

But Gov. Butch Otter said he was “surprised and concerned” when he learned Tuesday night of Craig's reconsideration. He said he is proceeding under the assumption that Craig will resign Sept. 30 as he announced Saturday. But Otter did say, “If there is no vacancy, there is no appointment.”

Other senators already are jockeying for Craig’s committee positions. GOP leaders stripped Craig of his top-ranking positions on several committees last week. Otter said Senate leaders have told him Craig's successor will not get Craig's seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, which determines how and where federal money is spent.

Craig’s lawyers argued in a letter today that the Senate ethics committee lacks jurisdiction over his case because his plea is “wholly unrelated to his performance of official duties.”

But in a letter to McConnell, the committee’s chairwoman and vice-chairman said they appear to have jurisdiction for investigating “allegations of improper conduct which may reflect upon the Senate.”

The letter, signed by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif, and vice-chairman Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, goes on to say that typically, the committee stops investigating members when they leave the Senate, but “pending Senator Craig’s resignation, the committee will continue to review this matter.”

That prompted Craig to release a statement tonight saying, “It is my intent to fight the case before the Ethics Committee while I am a sitting senator. I would prefer to have that case resolved on its merits.”

He also said “the letter sent today from the committee to Senator McConnell does not address the arguments laid out by my attorney earlier today. I hope that committee addresses those arguments sooner, rather than later, so that I can have my name cleared.”

Otter considers placeholder

Otter, who met with Craig today, said his list of possible successors includes Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson. He also has heard from former Attorney General David Leroy of Boise and former Idaho Falls State Sen. Dane Watkins.

Otter said he also is considering appointing a caretaker to hold Craig’s seat only through the end of Craig’s term in 2008, not to be a candidate in the November 2008 election. But the state would benefit from an extra 15 months of seniority if Otter’s appointee runs in 2008 and wins, he said.

Otter said would not wait until Sept. 30 to appoint a successor. “I’d like to give them a couple of weeks to hit the ground running,” Otter said.

Craig’s support mixed

When a reporter asked Otter whether Craig should resign, he replied, “I'm not going to go there.” Idaho Republican Reps. Mike Simpson and Bill Sali deferred to Craig, too.

McConnell also wouldn’t say whether Republicans would welcome Craig back if he stays. From McConnell on down the Republican leadership ranks, a theme emerged Wednesday: The Idaho senator would be breaking his word if he didn't resign. While no one said Craig had lied, many of his GOP colleagues suggested he had breached their trust.

“Once you announce you’re resigning, you don’t take it back,” said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah.

Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and the head of the Republican National Committee, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee; and White House spokeswoman Dana Perino all said they take Craig at his word that he’ll resign Sept. 30.

“Rush to judgment”

At a closed-door Republican policy lunch, at least three senators complained their leaders “rushed to judgment,” CNN reported. Other senators defended the leadership.

Sen. Arlen Specter, the lone Republican to speak up for Craig on Sunday talk shows last weekend, said he would stand by his televised comments.

Craig and his staff are working with Otter to make the transition as seamless as possible, said Craig’s communication director, Dan Whiting. Policy staffers are preparing briefings for Craig’s potential successor and working to keep legislation moving forward. They also are continuing to solve constituent problems, Whiting said. “Everyone’s operating on the assumption” Craig will quit, Whiting said.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484. Erika Bolstad: (202) 383-6104. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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