Minneapolis — Sen. Larry Craig said Wednesday that he will remain in office after a Minnesota judge said Craig's court case won't be resolved until after the senator's self-imposed Sunday deadline to resign.
Senate Republican leaders greeted the news with silence. After the latest twist in the month-long drama, the only voices of support for Craig came from Idaho's congressional delegation.
"Today was a major step in the legal effort to clear my name," Craig said in a statement. "The court has not issued a ruling on my motion to withdraw my guilty plea. For now, I will continue my work in the United States Senate for Idaho."
All the members of Idaho's congressional delegation released statements supporting Craig. But Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to answer any questions about Craig. So did the Republican National Committee.
A spokesman said Gov. Butch Otter is still assuming Craig will quit Sunday. And Idaho GOP Chairman Kirk Sullivan said he could say little while Craig's case remains in court.
Craig pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after an undercover police officer said he tried to solicit sex June 11 in a Minneapolis airport men's room.
Craig is unlikely to regain his old status in the Senate, said a Republican leadership aide.
Although Craig was pressured by GOP leaders to step down from his committee leadership posts in late August, he did so voluntarily. Republicans have already chosen replacements for Craig, and the senators who were bumped up to his old committee leadership positions are unlikely to cede their new roles without a fight.
So why would Craig, stripped of most of his power, want to hang on?
He likely wants his name cleared legally so he can leave on his own terms, said Jasper LiCalzi, a political economy professor at Albertson College of Idaho.
"He doesn't want to resign under a cloud," he said.
If the national Republican party had its druthers, Craig would quietly step away, LiCalzi said.
"Every time this comes up it hurts the Republicans," he said.
Gov. Butch Otter was wrapping up interviews with potential replacements Wednesday, spokesman Jon Hanian said.
"You have the governor waiting, you have the rest of the senators (waiting), those that could be appointed senator — everybody's like frozen and waiting for Craig to decide it's over," LiCalzi said.
Idaho Democratic Chairman Richard Stallings, who served in Congress with Craig, said the senator's actions are damaging both Republicans and Idaho.
"I think the longer this drags out, the more embarrassment it brings to the state," he said.
Idaho Republican Party Chairman Kirk Sullivan said there was little he could say, because the Craig matter is pending in court.
Craig's staff did not return phone calls seeking clarification of Craig's statement. His office said earlier this month that it would stop speaking to the Statesman.
Craig's statements have evolved, from his initial Sept. 1 press conference where he announced his "intent to resign from the Senate, effective Sept. 30," to his most recent comment that appears to leave the door open for him to stay in the Senate indefinitely.
Police allege, among other things, that the lawmaker slid his foot into an adjoining stall — touching a policeman's shoe — and repeatedly ran his hand under the stall partition. Dozens of men have been arrested in the same bathroom for soliciting sex in a similar manner. Craig pleaded guilty to the charge of disorderly conduct in August but has since said he regrets that decision.
In a 30-minute hearing Wednesday, Judge Charles Porter disagreed pointedly with Craig's Washington, D.C., attorney, William Martin, over Martin's description of disorderly conduct as it applied to Craig's case.
Martin first acknowledged that getting a guilty plea withdrawn was "next to impossible." He told Porter that he didn't dispute the facts, but he didn't believe that any of them constituted a crime.
When Martin argued Craig's actions couldn't be considered disorderly conduct because "you should have either touching, or words, or a combination of the two," Porter disagreed.
"If I were to come storming around the bench and start shaking my fist at you … that's the sort of thing that would case you to become alarmed," he said.
"It absolutely would," Martin replied.
"Well, that's disorderly conduct," Porter said.
The other main argument was made by Craig's Minneapolis attorney, Thomas Kelly, who argued that the mail-in petition used by Craig was "defective" because it lacked a judge's signature.
Prosecutor Christopher Renz, representing the Metropolitan Airports Commission, said Craig's defense team was trying to make each of Craig's individual actions seem "nebulous and vague," but that when all of them were considered together, they represented a "series of invasions" into the adjacent bathroom stall.
At the end of the brief hearing, Porter told attorneys that he wouldn't have a decision on the motion "before the end of next week."
The courtroom was filled to capacity with about three dozen reporters, members of the public, and a smattering of attorneys. Cameras and police as well as three placard-carrying protesters clustered outside the suburban Minneapolis courthouse during the afternoon.
"We're Craig supporters from Minnesota who think the whole thing is really silly," protester Anthony Wright said. One of the placards read: "Pee Don't Plea."
Whether or not Craig's motion is overturned, the case has inspired some changes: Plans are under way to lower the partitions between stalls in the airport's bathroom to the floor to prevent future toe touching or hand-swiping.
Deborah Caulfield Rybak is a Statesman correspondent in Minnesota. Erika Bolstad is a Statesman reporter with McClatchy Newspapers in Washington D.C.
Heath Druzin: 373-6617