Larry Craig

Craig on the job despite leaders' cold shoulders

WASHINGTON — It's a lonely U.S. Senate for Larry Craig, whose uncertain status has upset his social and political standing in the clubby chamber.

Yet Craig went to work Thursday, as he has since he returned to the Senate last week after a two-week absence.

Craig's role on several committees has been limited since he was forced to step down from his leadership posts after the news broke last month that he had been arrested in a June undercover sex sting in a men's room of the Minneapolis airport.

But Craig, looking subdued and worn, sat through a 90-minute Energy and Natural Resources committee meeting on mining, one of his pet issues. He doggedly listened to every word of testimony and posed critical questions to one of the environmentalists speaking.

He cast several votes as the Senate debated Iraq, children's health insurance and other issues.

Seated at his desk in the back row of the Senate chambers, he was quieter than usual, engaging in little of the easy jocularity and bipartisan banter of a typical day.

"I think for the most part, he's been received pretty well," said Craig's fellow Idahoan, Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, who has been one of Craig's few vocal supporters in the Senate. "They have been very warm on a personal level. I have not observed any negative confrontations or anything."

But there was little warmth from Republican Senate leaders, who have said they took Craig at his word when he said during a Sept. 1 news conference in Boise that he would step down Sept. 30, which is Sunday. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, refused to say anything about Craig.

"The only comment I have about Senator Craig is what I said before: I thought he made the right decision a couple of weeks ago," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, referring to Craig's announcement that he would step down at the end of the month.

Ensign, who is on McConnell's Senate GOP leadership team, said that since Craig decided not to observe the original deadline, he now faces the embarrassing glare of a Senate Ethics Committee hearing.

Senate GOP leaders asked the committee to look into Craig's behavior to determine whether he engages in conduct unbecoming a senator.

If Craig goes away, the hearing does, too.

"I don't think it's helping the institution, let alone the party," Ensign said. "I don't think it's healthy for the institution to put it through that."

Asked if Craig should be expelled from the Senate, Ensign said a recommendation is "up to the Ethics Committee."

Still, Craig has some friends remaining in the Republican ranks, including Crapo and another Westerner, Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.

"At a human level, all of his colleagues wish him well and understand the pain that this must be for Larry," Smith said. "What's always lost in these circumstances is the human dimension. And that needs to be remembered."

Sen. Trent Lott, the only member of Republican Senate leadership who will say anything kind on Craig's behalf, said he could put himself in his Idaho colleague's shoes.

The Mississippi lawmaker lost his post as Senate minority leader over remarks that were considered racially insensitive.

The two were half of the former "Singing Senators" quartet. Regardless of the circumstances of Craig's arrest, "when you're a friend, you're a friend," Lott said.

Thursday, one day after he told his colleagues he intends to stay in the Senate, Craig was tight-lipped and terse when reporters asked him about his efforts Wednesday to overturn his guilty plea in a Minnesota courtroom.

The Idaho senator referred to the statement he released Wednesday, when he said he would stay in office "for now" while a Minnesota judge continues to consider his request to withdraw his guilty plea to disorderly conduct. An airport police officer says Craig tried to solicit sex from him as they sat in adjacent stalls.

The judge said he is unlikely to rule before the end of next week.

"I'm sure it's been difficult," Lott said. "It's uncomfortable. It's pretty lonely sometimes. I think he's handling it as well as he possibly can.

"But as long as he is a senator for the people of Idaho, he has to do his job. He's doing what he has to do."

Erika Bolstad: (202) 383-6104