WASHINGTON — Within hours of the disclosure of Sen. Larry Craig's arrest and conviction after an undercover sex sting, Republican Senate leaders concluded that the exploding political scandal needed a fast resolution, one that necessitated the Idaho Republican's prompt resignation.
Although Craig had only pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, disorderly conduct in an airport bathroom, this was one controversy too far for his colleagues. For one, it involved allegations of homosexuality and put Craig's party in an awkward, possibly hypocritical position given that Republican strategists had often employed antigay rhetoric on issues that agitated their party's base voters.
With the corruption issue having weighed on some of their congressional candidates in the disastrous 2006 elections, Senate Republicans saw Craig as inviting even heavier political damage, especially on the heels of messy ethics cases involving two other Republican senators, David Vitter of Louisiana, who was the client of a dubious escort service, and Ted Stevens of Alaska, who faces a widening inquiry into whether he traded official favors.
GOP on damage alert
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
President Bush's weakened political status on Iraq, combined with the reality that 22 Republicans face re-election in 2008 (compared with only 12 Democrats) made the Republican caucus extremely reluctant to weather a protracted ethics investigation into Craig's misconduct, which some senators viewed as far more shocking and distasteful than any of the other problems staining their party.
If the Republicans seemed self-serving and draconian, it was because many of them felt they had lost their political margin for error.
So Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on Wednesday sent a blunt message, a threat meant to have the effect achieved on Saturday afternoon, when Craig announced his resignation. McConnell enlisted Idaho's junior senator, Mike Crapo, who was close to Craig, to warn him that he would face excruciating public hearings into his conduct, similar to the threat raised by Democrats against former Sen. Robert Packwood of Oregon, who was accused of sexual harassment.
Both McConnell and Craig had served on the Packwood investigatory panel. Such hearings would no doubt attract extensive television coverage, possible testimony from the arresting officer and a vivid replay of the embarrassing arrest, and would also explore whether there were other, similar incidents in Craig's past. The warning, according to several Republicans involved in the negotiations, figured into Craig's decision to give up his Senate seat.
"These are serious times of war and conflict, times that deserve the Senate's and the full nation's attention," Craig said Saturday in Boise as he announced he would give up his post rather than roil the Senate.
One Republican senator did privately voice reservations about the rush to force Craig out, compared to the lack of any public reprimand of Vitter. This senator and others said the different approach made it appear the party was simply less tolerant of homosexual conduct.
‘A difficult decision'
Craig did not arrive easily at that moment. Two days after his June arrest became public, he still clung to the idea that he could retain his Senate seat even as prominent colleagues demanded he quit, the details of his encounter with an undercover police officer were played out endlessly in the media and his party's leadership took aggressive action against him.
On Wednesday, Craig appeared intent on trying to serve out his Senate term despite the leadership's decision to call for an ethics inquiry and strip him of his committee leadership posts.
On Friday, Craig informed McConnell he was resigning, a decision the Republican leader applauded in a statement on Saturday.
"Sen. Larry Craig made a difficult decision, but the right one," McConnell said. "It is my hope he will be remembered not for this, but for his three decades of dedicated public service."
‘shocked' by response
In Idaho, a person close to Craig did not say exactly what drove Craig's decision, but that the veteran lawmaker had been stunned by the party's response to his predicament.
"Larry was shocked by the deafening silence by some and rush to judgment by others, even in his own leadership," said the person, who is a confidante and adviser to Craig and asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the behind-scenes deliberations. "He had to evaluate what it would be like to go back into that environment."
The adviser said that none of the Republican senators who called for his resignation, including John McCain of Arizona, sought out Craig's version of events. "If you served in Congress a long time, you'd think you'd make that call before you ask for someone's resignation, but that didn't happen."
In the end, the associate said, "It may have been the silence rather than the noise that was the tipping point."
a call to action
Republican officials said Saturday that they needed aggressive action against their colleague once they recovered from their shock at Monday's disclosure of his guilty plea to a sexually related disorderly conduct charge.
Some saw Craig's infraction as meeting a different legal threshold. After contending in recent weeks with one Republican's admission of involvement with an escort service and the search of another's home by federal agents, Senate Republicans said they could show no tolerance for Craig given that he had already pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after being arrested in an airport men's room.
"Guilt was already established," said one official, who did not want to be publicly identified.
The official contrasted Craig's case with those of Vitter, who did not face criminal charges in the escort service incident, and Stevens, who has denied any wrongdoing after the FBI executed a search warrant on his home.
Members of the Republican leadership convened over conference calls on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, spurred by visions of the spectacle that would almost certainly surround Craig and the Senate if he returned to Congress.
On Tuesday, the leadership agreed to seek an ethics investigation against Craig and purposely left Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a member of the leadership and the top Republican on the ethics panel, out of their deliberations. On Wednesday, the leadership agreed to strip Craig of his committee leadership slots, effectively making him, in the words of one, "a rookie" in the Senate.
Duff Wilson and David M. Herszenhorn of the New York Times contributed to this story.