WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Larry Craig's support among key party leaders weakened Thursday, leaving Idaho facing diminished clout in Congress whether the embattled Idaho Republican stays or quits.
Republican leaders stepped up pressure on Craig as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called his conduct "unforgivable" and the chairman of the Senate Republican re-election committee suggested that Craig should resign. McConnell also said many Republican senators now want Craig to go.
Both senators stopped short of calling for Craig's resignation, but their prominence in the Senate Republican leadership gave their comments added weight. McConnell, of Kentucky, is the leader and chief strategist of Senate Republicans, and Sen. John Ensign of Nevada heads the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, which provides financial help and strategy advice to Republican Senate candidates.
Craig denied on Tuesday that he's gay and said he'd done nothing wrong and shouldn't have pleaded guilty.
Reports surfaced Monday that Craig had pleaded guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct after an undercover police officer arrested him in June, saying he had solicited sex in a men's room at the Minneapolis airport.
When he was pressed about his colleague's future Thursday, McConnell declined to say whether he thought Craig should resign. But he said that many Republican senators thought Craig should.
"We have acted promptly to begin the process of dealing with this conduct," McConnell said in Lexington, Ky. "We will see what happens in the coming days."
McConnell and other Senate Republican leaders on Wednesday removed the three-term Idaho senator from his leadership posts on Senate committees and subcommittees. They also have asked the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate.
Idaho could lose millions
Ensign told The Associated Press in Nevada that it would be best for the Republican Party if Craig resigned.
Idaho stands to lose influence and millions of federal dollars now that Craig has lost committee leadership positions on the Appropriations, Environment and Veterans Affairs committees.
Political experts compared Craig's situation to 1995, when then-U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., chairman of the Finance Committee, was forced to resign after allegations that he'd sexually abused 10 women.
After Packwood's ouster, Oregon struggled to recapture leadership posts that had made its delegation among the strongest in the country on financial issues, said Ronald Tammen, director of the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University.
Craig marginalized, Sabato says
Craig has similarly lost much of the clout he earned during 17 years in the Senate.
He sometimes boasted that he brought home $2.5 million a week to Idaho in the form of federal grants.
In his three terms in the Senate — he also spent a decade in the U.S. House until 1990 — Craig has pushed funding for rural schools and communities, co-authoring with U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a bill that gave millions to rural areas in the West where timber-based economies had been undercut by reduced logging on U.S. Forest Service-managed territory.
He's also championed the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, including $40 million in 2005 to begin development of a new experimental nuclear reactor to produce electricity and hydrogen. In July, he argued in favor of more than $25 million in Idaho-related projects in an agriculture funding bill, including nearly $13 million to fight a worm afflicting eastern Idaho potato farmers.
In 2005, Sen. Larry Craig co-sponsored an amendment for an appropriations bill with Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia that increased funding for the national endowments for the humanities and Arts by $5 million each. That boosted funding for Idaho and other states.
With his removal from leadership posts, Craig has been marginalized on all these issues, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, who predicted Craig will quit within days, under pressure from national Republican leaders.
"It will cost Idaho millions of dollars and lots of influence on policy," Sabato said, adding the scandal isn't likely to be forgotten soon.
A nuisance for environmentalists
Craig's policies have angered environmentalists.
This summer, Craig joined other Idaho leaders who demanded that the U.S. Department of Interior allow more livestock grazing, which he contends will reduce the danger of wildfires that have burned more than 1,000 square miles on the Idaho-Nevada border.
He attempted to force the Bonneville Power Administration, which manages dams along the Columbia River, to eliminate funding for an agency that counts young salmon crossing dams.
He's attached a rider to a pending federal spending bill to uphold a Snake River management plan that a federal judge has said is illegal because it doesn't protect endangered salmon.
"He's consistently made a nuisance of himself on every environmental issue since he's been there," said Janine Blaeloch of the Seattle-based Western Lands Project. "The legislation he's supported has left public lands policy in the Dark Ages."
Party 'will do the right thing'
Former House Republican Leader Tom Delay told MSNBC host Chris Matthews that he'll reserve judgment on Craig, but he thinks Republicans won't stand for scandal-ridden leaders.
"I'm not defending Larry Craig, if he's guilty," Delay added. "What I do know is the Republicans, as they have in the past, when you have members that have problems or scandals and they are found guilty, the Republican Party does the right thing and kicks them out."
Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said his fellow Republicans wrongly were linking the Craig scandal to the broader Mark Foley scandal, which hurt the party just before last fall's elections.
Foley, a Florida Republican, resigned his seat in the House of Representatives after reports that he'd sent sexually explicit Internet messages to at least one underage male former page.
"These things generally generate more heat than they do actual impact," Fabrizio said. "Come November 2008, unless Craig's on the ballot in Idaho, I don't see how this impacts the makeup of the Senate."
Dana Oland and Greg Hahn of the Idaho Statesman contributed to this report.