GOP in distress: When lawmaker behaves badly,

“I didn’t do it. I have no comment. I don’t know what you’re talking about. When I go to the bathroom I sit on my hands.”

These were comments made in jest last week by Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) before even a single question was posed to him. The lawmaker wasn’t alone in his bathroom humor. Others in his party and even some Democrats followed suit, blushed, hid their faces and laughed about what was surely an odd way for them to return to Congress after summer recess.

Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) wondered earnestly what would possess a senator to want to spend so much time in a public bathroom — he joked about what the appeal of all that “cold tile” could possibly be.

The source of all this awkward humor stems from yet another crisis for the GOP — this time a late-summer sex scandal likely to take down Sen. Larry Craig (Idaho), another GOP lawmaker in trouble so soon after the sex scandals of Sen. David Vitter (La.) in mid-July and Rep. Mark Foley (Fla.) in the fall of last year. 

“I think it’s a mess,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) told The Hill in a phone interview.

“If we can’t be honest about it and what went wrong …” Gingrich says as his thought trails off. “When I left we were the first reelected majority since 1928. Building on the Reagan majority, we were really poised to become the natural governing party of the country. Obviously the following eight years have not worked.”

While many Republican lawmakers admit that their party is in a state of crisis, some say it’s Congress that has taken the hit and not just the GOP. Humor is used to deflect the topic of bathroom sex, which for many lawmakers is uncomfortable and foreign. Some say they have not listened to the now-infamous Craig audio between the senator and the police officer; others have refused to read the sexually explicit instant-message exchanges between Foley and the male page.

“The Craig story is just so bizarre that people don’t identify with it,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who has not listened to the Craig audio or read the Foley messages. “Nobody back home sees congressmen going to men’s rooms tapping their toes in the stall next to them, and they would have gone through life happily, ignorantly, if it hadn’t been a big story last week.
“The bigger disappointment was, when we had the gavel, what did we do with it?”

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who is not seeking reelection, listened to the Craig audio on his Sirius radio while driving. “He was so defensive about his behavior that he sounded guilty of something,” remarked LaHood, who added: “The Craig activity has not really affected the House. I know it has caused heartburn in the Senate. People are joking about it in the House.”

Push bathroom humor aside, and there are serious notes of distress within the GOP. “As a party right now we’re all suffering for a lot of personal bad decisions, and that’s been really hard,” said a high-level GOP aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Rehberg does have serious thoughts on the matter. “I see some benefit in starting from scratch,” he said, admitting that the GOP is suffering. “I think there’s opportunity in that we can do better. Given an opportunity to focus on agenda I still think we are right in a contrast of philosophy.”

What does Gingrich make of the Craig scandal as it relates to the state of the GOP? “What can you say? He’ll be gone,” said Gingrich. “Why don’t you go back and read about Sen. [Edward] Kennedy [D-Mass.], why don’t you go back and read about [House Financial Services Committee] Chairman [Barney] Frank [D-Mass.]?

“It’s interesting that it’s the Republicans who leave. Go look at [former Rep.] Gary Studds [D-Mass.], who regained his seat, and compare him to Mark Foley and you tell me, what’s the lesson here? One party protects and nurtures its own and doesn’t suffer anything for it and one party is in the process of pushing out its members. It’s a bizarre double standard.”

Some Republicans were privately delighted when Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) was indicted in June on bribery charges after $90,000 was found in the lawmaker’s freezer. The news headlines of the Jefferson indictment, these Republicans surmised, would remind voters that both parties can have bad apples. But to the dismay of Republican strategists, the Jefferson trial has taken a back seat to Vitter, and now Craig.

Like Gingrich, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) declared that the Democrats are no angels. “I didn’t draw broad conclusions about the Democratic Party based on Bill Clinton’s sexual activity in the White House,” Pence said. “From Election Day forward we have had a number of disappointing and dispiriting elements.

“I think morale is still high,” Pence added. This is a tenacious minority. As an American it’s disappointing to me. Whenever you see disapproving and confused behavior among high public officials it’s disappointing. Our standard here is to be above the appearance of impropriety.”

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said the GOP ought to preach less and behave better. 

“Well, we talk too much of it and practice too little of it,” said Flake, a devout Mormon who grew up in Snowflake, Ariz., a town named for two Mormon pioneers — Erastus Snow and Flake’s great-great grandfather, William Flake. “That’s always the trap.”

Flake reasoned, “People are human. It’s not surprising that these shortcomings come to light … I don’t believe behavior is going to change much and I think it would serve us well to do less of it [preach morality].”

He admits to his own moral failings, but declines to offer specifics. “I’m just glad that all of our shortcomings are not out there — mine included,” he said.

Nonetheless, some lawmakers see the shroud over the Republican Party as a temporary state of disarray.

“People will feel a lot better after Sen. Craig has resigned,” said House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putman (Fla.).

But then Putnam makes a point that many GOP lawmakers made last week, insisting that the Craig, Vitter and Foley scandals cast a pall not just on the Republican Party but on Congress as a whole. “Clearly we’re in a period where the entire Congress is under a cloud,” Putnam said. “Both parties have to remove the appearance of impropriety.”

Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) also sees the problem in both parties, not just his own. “They’ve had sex scandals on both sides since I’ve been here,” he said. “I suppose you’re always going to have someone who doesn’t have their head on straight. Right now we’re under a microscope and we have to be aware of that.”

When the bathroom topic comes up, Putnam blushes and momentarily covers his face with his hands. “Who knew about this code and weird, goofy stuff going on in bathrooms?” he asks. “The details as they emerged were incredible. You clearly find it stunning and disappointing.”

How are his spirits? “I’d in better spirits if we were in the majority and 20 points ahead in the presidential race,” Putnam said.