WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Larry Craig has missed dozens of votes this month while he has been in Idaho working to undo the legal ramifications of his arrest in a sex sting at the Minneapolis airport.
The Republican senator was at home in Idaho on the summer congressional recess when the news broke Aug. 27 of his arrest and guilty plea. Pressured by Republican leaders, he announced Sept. 1 that he planned to resign at month's end. Three days later, Congress returned from a monthlong break — but Craig stayed away.
He hasn't returned to Washington since. From Sept. 4 through Wednesday, when Congress broke for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, Craig has missed all 26 of the Senate's votes. They included votes on judicial nominees and a spending bill for military construction and veterans' affairs.
Craig's spokesman said the three-term senator believes his presence in Washington would be disruptive right now, in part because of the media attention it would draw. Craig said as much when he announced his intention to resign, spokesman Dan Whiting said.
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"There are two priorities on Sen. Craig's mind right now," Whiting said. "One is clearing his name. Two is doing what's best for Idaho. He would love to be here be working. It's what he's done for 27 years. He'll come back at a time when his presence won't be a total distraction to Senate business."
Because Craig has not officially resigned, he continues to draw his annual salary of $165,200.
None of the votes Craig missed since the news broke of his arrest were close enough that his presence would have swung the results one way or another. In many cases, he was not the only absent senator.
Gov. Butch Otter has said he plans to appoint Craig's successor soon. Meanwhile, Craig's colleagues have said they'll pick up the slack in his absence, and they'll work to help his office transition to a new senator when the time comes.
But Craig's absence might be felt in conference committees that reconcile House and Senate versions of spending bills. Craig pushed for some of the Idaho earmarks in the 2008 appropriations bills working their way through Congress, and he has protected Idaho projects in past conference committees. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, has said he will use his position to keep conferees from reducing Idaho spending that Craig advocated in the Senate bills.
On Wednesday, the Senate passed a transportation and housing spending bill, packed with projects for Idaho. Idaho's junior senator, Mike Crapo, issued a news release that was careful to point out that many of the projects in the bill were jointly secured by both senators. And while touting the Idaho earmarks in the bill, Crapo pointed out that he, too, would "continue to advocate for Idaho's priorities."
"We are doing our best to be sensitive to the circumstance that Sen. Craig's staff is dealing with, and they are working with us as well," said Crapo's spokeswoman, Susan Wheeler. "But we're also recognizing that we don't want any projects for Idahoans to drop through the cracks."
No matter what they do, his colleagues can't vote for Craig, who wasn't in Washington to vote Wednesday on projects he wanted included in the spending bill, such as a $450,000 preservation grant for the historic town of Chesterfield.
Craig's absence has drawn criticism from some of his constituents in Idaho.
"If he's not in Washington, we're not being represented," said Jeri Tortorello, 56, a paralegal from Pollock, Idaho. "We have crucial votes coming up, and we should have two votes. I think he should have resigned immediately and saved the people of Idaho the embarrassment."
Until now, Craig rarely missed votes, according to a congressional voting record database at www.washingtonpost.com. Until the recent spate of missed votes, a look at Craig's voting record back to 1991 shows that he missed just 51 votes over the past 16 years. And until his recent absence, he had missed just four votes in 2007. He has missed 9 percent of votes so far this Congress.
In comparison, Crapo has missed 18 votes this year, just over 5 percent of the 336 recorded in the Senate. Over his eight-year career in the Senate, according to the Post database, Crapo has missed 87 votes —many more overall than Craig — in part because he has had to take time off for treatment of prostate cancer.
Craig's spokesman points out that with six senators actively running for president right now, they routinely miss votes while they're on the campaign trail. For example, Republican Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had missed half of all roll call votes this year, according to the database.
But voting isn't all that members of Congress do. This week Craig missed important discussions on the war in Iraq, though he is not a member of any of the committees that heard progress reports on the war from Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
Craig did have something to say about Iraq, though. He issued a statement saying Petraeus' testimony this week "told a positive story." It was the first time Craig said anything publicly on a policy issue since Aug. 27.
While Craig has said he intends to resign Sept. 30, he has also left open the option for staying in office through the end of his term if he's able to withdraw his guilty plea and clear his name. Although he has left open some wiggle room and has a court appearance in Minnesota on Sept. 26, Whiting said the resignation date is likely to be final.
"Larry's a senator until the 30th," Whiting said, "and he'll be representing Idaho."
Erika Bolstad: (202) 383-6104