The Nevada senator who leads the Republican effort to reclaim the majority in the Senate in 2008 joined a growing number of leaders suggesting Sen. Larry Craig resign.
Sen. John Ensign told MSNBC today that it would be best if Craig resigns, MSNBC reported at 1 p.m. MDT.
Ensign's turning away from Craig is especially significant because he is chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Senate GOP's campaign arm that raises money and develops strategy to elect Republican senators. Ensign's statement suggests that Republicans fear that a prolonged battle by Craig to keep his seat will harm other GOP candidates in 2008.
Craig is among the GOP incumbents who face re-election next year. Craig said on Tuesday that he will announce next month whether he will run for a fourth term.
“I think the pressure will continue to build,” said Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, who chairs the party’s senatorial campaign committee.
Ensign told The Associated Press in his home state that Craig “admitted guilt, he pled guilty. It’s a little different situation than just being accused of something.”
Ensign stopped short of calling on Craig to resign his seat, but strongly suggested he do so.
“I wouldn’t put myself hopefully in that kind of position, but if I was in a position like that, that’s what I would do,” he said. “He’s going to have to answer that for himself.”
Several other Republicans have called on Craig to step down, and Ensign’s comments, coming from a member of the leadership, sent an unmistakable public signal that support for the Idaho Republican has eroded significantly.
Craig pleaded guilty on Aug. 1 to a charge of disorderly conduct after being arrested in a sting operation in a Minneapolis airport men’s room several weeks earlier. On Tuesday, he said that despite his guilty plea, he had done nothing wrong and had hired an attorney.
His predicament has roiled the Republican party in his home state and nationally in the days since.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., repeatedly declined today to say whether he thought embattled Craig should resign, but he did call Craig's conduct in a Minneapolis bathroom "unforgivable."
When pressed about his Republican colleague's future, McConnell acknowledged that many in his caucus believe Craig should resign.
"We have acted promptly to begin the process of dealing with this conduct," McConnell said. "We will see what happens in the coming days."
McConnell and other Senate Republican leaders moved Wednesday to strip Craig of his leadership posts on committees and sub-committees. Meanwhile, they have asked the Senate ethics committee to investigate.
It was publicly revealed Monday that Craig pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct earlier this summer after an incident with an undercover male police officer in a Minneapolis airport bathroom.
Craig has denied being gay and said he will not resign.
McConnell described the ordeal as "one of the more unusual incidents" he has had to deal with since becoming minority leader last year.
On Tuesday, Republican Senate leaders pushed Craig from senior committee positions. A White House spokesman expressed disappointment in the 62-year-old lawmaker.
Others in the GOP were more harsh. “Senator Craig pled guilty to a crime involving conduct unbecoming a senator,” said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn. “He should resign.”
Coleman, who faces a tough race for re-election next year, also turned over to charity a $2,500 campaign donation he received two months ago from Craig’s political action committee.
Craig “represents the Republican Party,” said Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, who called the behavior unacceptable and was the first in a steadily lengthening list of GOP members of Congress calling on Craig to quit.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also urged Craig to step down, as did a handful of Republican House members, including Jeff Miller and Ginny Brown-Waite of Florida, Mark Souder of Indiana, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Ron Lewis of Kentucky.
One GOP senator who did not call for Craig to resign — Missouri’s Kit Bond — said he was praying for Craig and his family but still called Craig’s conduct intolerable.
“It is unacceptable for a member of Congress to be soliciting sex in public restrooms,” Bond said.
Craig’s spokesman Smith said the GOP lawmakers “have a right to express themselves,” but added, “We’re not going to get into an argument on that right now.”
Craig is cooperating with Senate leaders by stepping aside as the senior Republican on the Veteran Affairs committee and from his position on two subcommittees, Smith said.
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, which threatens to write an ignominious end to a lifetime in public office.
GOP Senate leaders said they did not act lightly in asking Craig to give up his leadership posts temporarily. But they said their decision was “in the best interest of the Senate until this situation is resolved by the ethics committee.”
Meanwhile, Republicans in Craig’s home state were uncertain how to react.
Craig, who has represented Idaho in Congress for 27 years, has built deep trust and loyalty across the state and has come to know many of his supporters by name.
His work on the Appropriations Committee has delivered millions of dollars for public works projects, nonprofit organizations, farmers, ranchers and businesses — and the risk of losing all that worried some Republicans.
GOP activists also said they wanted to give Craig time to explain his version of events. “I think people here still need a little time,” said Republican state Sen. Mel Richardson of Idaho Falls. “People want to weigh in their minds how they feel about him and whether they can believe the evidence here.”
Gordon Polatis, an insurance agent from Blackfoot and a former state party committee member, said it’s not fair to judge just yet considering Craig has discounted the police version of the arrest. “I’m always willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt,” Polatis said Wednesday.
Republican Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter called his longtime friend an honorable man, adding: “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. 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.
Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey contributed to this report. Associated Press writers Scott Sonner in Reno, Todd Dvorak in Idaho, David Espo, Ken Thomas, Fred Frommer and Sam Hananel in Washington, and Jim Davenport in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report. John Stamper from McClatchy-Tribune Information Services also contributed to this report.