WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Larry Craig surprised most of his fellow senators Tuesday with his first return to Congress since news broke of his arrest and guilty plea in a sex sting at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.
Craig appeared Tuesday morning on the Senate floor for a vote, then joined a Republican policy lunch attended each Tuesday by all GOP senators and the vice president.
"I'm glad he's back," said Craig's Idaho colleague, Sen. Mike Crapo, as he left the lunch. "He's a good friend and colleague of mine, and when I heard he was going to be back, I was glad."
But one Republican told The Associated Press Craig's presence was awkward. Another said Craig stood up at the lunch for less than a minute and apologized to his colleagues for embarrassing them.
Until Craig showed up for work Tuesday, few people were aware he was planning to rejoin his colleagues.
As Craig entered the Capitol, he got a "big, welcome-back handshake" from what CNN described as a "surprised" Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Sen. Ted Stevens, who has experienced the scrutiny of controversy this year, too, when his Alaska home was raided by the FBI in late July, also welcomed Craig with a handshake when they ran into each other in a Capitol hallway.
Stevens never publicly spoke on Craig's behalf, but the Alaskan Republican received gushing support from Craig after the raid, when Craig described federal agents as "Gestapo-like" in their handling of the case.
Craig spoke briefly to reporters who ran into him as he entered the Capitol, and answered a few more questions when he left the Senate chambers and the GOP lunch. But he didn't elaborate much and he barely touched on his efforts to undo his guilty plea next week in a Minnesota court.
When asked by CNN whether he was confident about his court case, Craig said, "I have no opinion. I'd like to be (confident)."
Craig has said he intends to resign at the end of this month, but he has left the door open to remain in the Senate if he can clear his name by that self-imposed deadline.
"My plans have not changed," he told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
As for his return to the Capitol, Craig told the AP that it "feels good to be back."
Craig's Washington spokesman said the senator was just there to do his job.
"He is here representing Idaho, working on (his) transition and meeting with his legal team," said Craig's spokesman, Dan Whiting.
But Gov. Butch Otter said Craig had told him he was trying to gauge what support he has among his colleagues.
"He's assessing the environment," Otter told the AP.
Otter has moved forward with plans to replace Craig, though. Otter told reporters that he has personally interviewed Lt. Gov. Jim Risch and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. Otter told the AP that he has interviewed about 19 people total, most of them over the phone. He reiterated his goal to name a senator with interest in holding the office — not one who would simply step down after next year's election.
"This could give him 15 months additional seniority over all those junior senators who are coming in," Otter said. "That seniority is very, very valuable."
When the news broke of Craig's arrest, Republican leaders all but pushed him out the door, first by announcing an Ethics Committee investigation, and then by asking him to step down from his leadership posts on Senate committees.
Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders had little to say about Craig's return. Most would not comment, including Sen. John McCain, a presidential candidate who was among the first of Craig's colleagues to call on him to resign. Craig's most talkative supporter remained Sen. Arlen Specter, the only Republican senator other than Crapo to have defended Craig publicly.
When asked whether he thought that Craig regretted his decision, and whether he wanted to stay in the Senate, Specter said that he couldn't "crawl inside his head."
But Specter said that in the cloakroom, an area of the Senate chambers where senators can converse privately, there was "a lot of favorable talk about Larry," and that it helped that Craig returned "in good spirits."
"I think the initial shock has worn off," Specter said.
Specter, a former prosecutor, said he thought Craig had a good chance in court. Next Wednesday, Craig has a court hearing in Minnesota, where he has filed a motion seeking to withdraw his guilty plea to disorderly conduct.
"He's got a motion pending to withdraw his guilty plea," Specter said. "And I think he's got an excellent chance to win that."
While he was absent from Washington, Craig missed all 26 of the Senate's votes in the two weeks following their August recess. They included votes on judicial nominees and a spending bill for military construction and veterans' affairs. Craig's spokesman said that — until now — the three-term senator believed his presence in Washington would be disruptive because of the media attention it would draw.
Until his recent absence, Craig rarely 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.
Erika Bolstad: 202-383-6104