Following the Foley lessons

The Senate Republican leadership headed into the Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) mess armed with some lessons learned from the way the then-GOP House leadership handled the scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) sending sexually explicit messages to male pages.

Before they discovered that Craig is, if nothing else, a parser, the Senate leaders on Tuesday thought Craig was going to resign at the end of the month, giving them — they hoped — a short life to a nasty story, especially for the family values voters who are an important part of the Republican base.

Craig pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge last month after getting caught in a men’s room sting at the Minneapolis airport. The arresting officer — in a taped interview made public — came across as pressuring Craig to admit he was up to sexually creepy behavior in a toilet stall. GOP leaders thought they got the episode behind them by giving Craig every signal possible that he should go. He responded by saying over the weekend it was his “intent” to resign Sept. 30.

The Foley lessons, as executed by the Senate GOP leaders:

• Look for quick closure. That’s why Craig is finished, no matter his plea to reconsider his statement that it was his “intent” to resign on Sept. 30. Turns out intent is the ultimate wiggle word. In a remarkable voicemail bouncing around the Web and on the cable political shows on Wednesday, Craig talked about being railroaded and how he “reshaped” his statement after hearing what he thought were “stay and fight” words of encouragement from Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). Craig then went on to say he may not leave Sept. 30, telling the Senate ethics committee he wanted to use the month to try to clear his name.

The GOP Senate leaders huddled Wednesday morning and planned to send a strong message to Craig in the afternoon: Basically it is: “You are dead so leave.”

• Keep a unified front. Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and his colleagues never got ahead of the Foley story, a contributing factor to the Republicans losing the House in 2006. A reason is that that House Republicans splintered over what exactly occurred. That created dissent over how to handle the situation. The only GOP senator off the reservation is Specter, who often goes his own way.

• React swiftly. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stripped Craig of his committee assignments, sending a signal the leaders took the situation seriously. Of course, executing this post-Foley-era damage control plan is much easier because a GOP governor in Idaho guarantees a GOP replacement. A factor in the GOP leaders not lifting a finger after Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) admitted to soliciting a hooker — a crime— is that Louisiana has a Democratic governor and it involved a straight man cheating on his wife and rather than a married man looking at gay sex.

The political problem left for the GOP Senate leaders is finding a rationale for moving swiftly against Craig but not against Vitter and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who is the subject of an FBI criminal investigation. Melanie Sloan, the executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said they should be “subject to the same scrutiny as Sen. Craig.”

Sweet is the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times. E-mail: