Larry Craig

Senate has become a lonely place for Idaho's Larry Craig

The topic was global warming, and U.S. Sen. Larry Craig had plenty to say about the bill being discussed in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

He had to wait. Senate committee protocol put him at the bottom of the list, in line to speak even after the most junior of U.S. senators, John Barrasso of Wyoming, a Republican who was appointed this summer.

So Craig waited.

After nearly three decades in public life, and at a time in his Senate career when he should be at the height of his influence and power, the Idaho Republican probably shouldn't be the one waiting.

But since the news broke in August of his arrest in a sex sting in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, Craig has become a wisp of his former self in the Senate.

Within the span of a week, Craig saw his political status and personal reputation plummet. Pressured to resign, he instead stayed on, but was forced to give up his leadership posts on several Senate committees, and watched as his own GOP colleagues called for an ethics investigation into his behavior.

He rallied back with a public relations blitz, including a prime-time interview on NBC with Matt Lauer of the "Today Show." And he hired a high-profile Washington, D.C., defense attorney to fight an uphill battle to withdraw his guilty plea in a Minnesota courtroom.

Even with all that effort and expense, Craig has yet to regain his reputation or his political standing in the Senate.

'I'M WORKING IN MY COMMITTEES'

Craig has generally refused to speak to the Statesman since Sept. 19. But when asked by the paper in the Capitol last week about how his colleagues treat him, what sort of working relationship he has with them and what he has been up to, Craig responded: "I'm actively working in my committees."

And so he is. He'll be the Republican representative from the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works next month when the United Nations convenes its Climate Change Conference in Bali. He lost his leadership role on the Senate Appropriations Committee, but successfully retained millions of dollars of spending earmarked for Idaho.

And after a two-month hiatus, Craig has returned to making floor speeches, when senators are allowed to talk about just about anything they want. Once a habitual speechmaker - he gave nine floor speeches in June alone - Craig stopped Aug. 2 and didn't start again until Oct. 18, when he offered some words in support of the Special Olympics in Idaho. Since then, he has expounded on the origins of wildfires and the farm bill.

The Senate GOP ranks aren't exactly a friendly place these days for Craig, a conservative who once held a Senate leadership position that made him instrumental in steering ideology.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader who led the charge for Craig to step down, still will say nothing about his Republican colleague.

When there is warmth for Craig, it's more likely to come from Democrats who appreciate his help on bipartisan legislation like the farm bill or mining legislation.

AGJOBS BILL SUFFERS

Craig, along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, continues to be one of the main obstacles to reforming the 1872 Mining Act. The House has already passed a rewrite, but Reid opposes many of its provisions. With help from Craig, the majority leader is trying to come up with a reform plan to modernize the law and protect jobs, Reid spokesman Jon Summers said. There's been no consideration whatsoever of Craig's personal situation - or his status within the GOP.

"Senator Reid sees that as a personal issue, one that Senator Craig has to deal with, with his family and his party," Summers said. "It isn't something that Senator Reid has been interested in getting involved in at all. His priority is getting things done."

It's become more difficult for Craig to engage in charged ideological debates, though, and there's no better example than immigration.

Until the news broke of his arrest, Craig was the Republican standard bearer for AgJobs, an immigration reform bill that streamlines an existing guest worker program and offers legal status and possible U.S. citizenship for 1.5 million illegal immigrant farm workers. Co-sponsored with Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., it was the one piece of immigration legislation that had any chance - albeit slim - of passage this year in the Senate.

With Craig weakened by scandal, the bill lost one of its highest profile Republican backers in the Senate.

'I RESPECT HIM ... HE DIDN'T WAFFLE'

Proponents are looking for other GOP senators willing to take Craig's place, said Manual Cunha Jr., who heads the Nisei Farmers League, a coalition of growers in California's San Joaquin Valley. They still consider Craig a supporter, but mostly in spirit, said Cunha, whose group has been among the bill's most vocal advocates.

"The senator has always said, 'I'm going to keep working on this,'" Cunha said. "He's not out in front, because he's trying to deal with many other issues. I don't know if it's the word diminished, but I think his visual appearance is more behind the scenes today than it was prior to the incident."

Cunha said that it was disheartening to see Craig stumble.

"I respect him a lot, and I still do today," Cunha said. "He had the guts to stand up for something he believed in and didn't waffle and play the politics. It just really bothers me that my own Republican Party came out right away, and boom! just dumped this guy, a friend, a person who has worked hard."

Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, said he would like to see Craig use his remaining time as an advocate for issues that would leave a legacy. He points to some of the wilderness legislation that's been stalled in Congress, in part because it hasn't had Craig's wholehearted support.

"I do think he is in a place now where he really does see a 27- to 28-year career winding down in the U.S. Congress - it's a good time to consider what you are leaving behind," Johnson said. "He could put his shoulder to the wheel, and I think he could be helpful.

"He has certainly has less clout, but a senator is still a senator ... one person can do a lot."

'HIS CREDIBILITY HAS TAKEN A HIT'

For other advocacy groups that relied on Craig to champion their causes, his loss of status in the Senate is grounds for him to quit his job. Groups like the Idaho Values Alliance still expect him to vote their agenda on issues that are important to them, said Bryan Fischer, the organization's executive director.

But Fischer said he felt the nature of Craig's arrest made it impossible for Craig to be an outspoken opponent of two bills Fischer wants to fail: legislation that adds sexual orientation to employment-discrimination and hate-crimes laws.

"I haven't seen anything to change my perspective," Fischer said.

"Because of what had happened, it was going to be impossible for the senator to be a vocal leader on pro-family issues, because his credibility had taken such a hit."

Erika Bolstad: (202) 383-6104

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