Sen. Larry Craig’s political support eroded by the hour today as fellow Republicans in Congress called for him to resign and party leaders pushed him unceremoniously from senior committee posts.
The White House expressed disappointment, too — and nary a word of support for the 62-year-old lawmaker, who pleaded guilty earlier this month to a charge stemming from an undercover police operation in an airport men’s room.
Craig “represents the Republican Party,” said Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the first in a steadily lengthening list of GOP members of Congress to urge a resignation.
The senator’s spokesman declined comment. “They have a right to express themselves,” said Sidney Smith. He said he had heard no discussion of a possible resignation.
Craig said Tuesday he had committed no wrongdoing and shouldn’t have pleaded guilty. He said he had only recently retained a lawyer to advise him in the case that threatens to write an ignominious end to a lifetime in public office.
Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Norm Coleman of Minnesota joined Hoekstra in urging Craig to step down, as did Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida — and others who joined them as the day wore on.
McCain spoke out in an interview with CNN. “My opinion is that when you plead guilty to a crime, you shouldn’t serve. That’s not a moral stand. That’s not a holier-than-thou. It’s just a factual situation.” Coleman said in a written statement, “Senator Craig pled guilty to a crime involving conduct unbecoming a senator.”
For a second consecutive day, GOP Senate leaders stepped in, issuing a statement that said Craig had “agreed to comply with leadership’s request” to temporarily give up his posts on important committees. He has been the top Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee as well as on subcommittees for two other panels.
“This is not a decision we take lightly, but we believe this is in the best interest of the Senate until this situation is resolved by the ethics committee,” said the statement, issued in the name of Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the party leader, and others.
On Tuesday, the leaders jumped in ahead of Craig’s appearance before television cameras in Idaho to announce they had asked the ethics committee to look into the case.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said, “We are disappointed in the matter,” without specifying exactly what was causing the discomfort.
He said he hoped the ethics committee would do its work swiftly, “as that would be in the best interests of the Senate and the people of Idaho.”
In Craig’s home state, Republican Gov. Butch Otter said his longtime friend “is an honorable man and I am confident that Larry Craig will do what is best for him and his family and the state of Idaho.”
For the most part, Democrats studiously avoided involvement with an unfolding Republican scandal. “We at least ought to hear his side of the story.,” said Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, like McCain a presidential contender who spoke on CNN.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said his party stood to gain. “All of these people who (are) holier than thou are now under investigations. … I think the Republican Party will find itself in a great peril next year,” he said.
McCain’s call for a resignation was the first among GOP presidential rivals.
Sen. Sam Brownback, also seeking the White House, said Craig’s declaration that he had pleaded guilty to make the issue go away “doesn’t work in these jobs.” Still, the Kansan said it was premature to call for Craig to resign.
That wasn’t how it was seen by Coleman, a senator facing a potentially difficult re-election contest next year, or by Hoekstra, who signaled a concern about the impact on the party generally.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Hoekstra called Craig’s explanations “not credible.”
“I think it’s important for Republicans to step out right now and say, ’No, this behavior is not going to be tolerated,’ ” he said.
Hoekstra, a conservative from western Michigan, said he reached his decision on his own and had not consulted with party leaders.
“It’s not a judgment on gay rights or anything like that. This is about leadership and setting a standard that the American people and your colleagues in the Republican Party can feel good about.”
Other Republicans dwelt on Craig’s guilty plea, but Hoekstra’s mention of homosexuality reflected a separate concern.
“I am not gay. I never have been gay,” the senator said on Tuesday, but that stood in apparent contradiction to the police report that led to his guilty plea, submitted on Aug. 1.
Craig was arrested on June 11 in the Minneapolis airport men’s room after an undercover officer observed conduct that he said was “often used by persons communicating a desire to engage in sexual conduct.”
Craig was read his rights, fingerprinted and required to submit to a mug shot at the time of his arrest. He subsequently pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, and signed papers that included a notation that the court would not accept a guilty plea from anyone claiming to be innocent.
In his public appearance on Tuesday, Craig said he had “overreacted and made a poor decision” after being apprehended.
“While I was not involved in any inappropriate conduct in the Minneapolis Airport or anywhere else, I chose to plead guilty to a lesser charge in hopes of making it go away,” he said.
Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, an openly homosexual member of the House, said Craig was a hypocrite on gay rights issues but he didn’t think the Republican senator should resign.
“This is the hypocrisy — it’s to deny legal equality to gay people, but then to engage in gay behavior,” Frank said.
Associated Press writer Todd Dvorak contributed to this story from Idaho. Matthew Daly, Ken Thomas and Andrew Miga contributed from Washington, and Jim Davenport from Columbia, S.C.