GOP uproar over Craig

Senate GOP leaders renewed their effort to force an absent Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) to resign on Wednesday, but that political pressure appeared to leave Craig unfazed and some Republicans fearing that the embattled conservative could hang on until 2008.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGun proposal picks up GOP support Children’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Dems see Trump as potential ally on gun reform MORE (R-Ky.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Chairman John Ensign (R-Nev.) both urged Craig to continue with his announced plans to step down on Sept. 30, calling resignation the right thing to do.

Yet McConnell acknowledged that Craig intends to serve out his term if he can resolve his legal case this month, and sources close to the onetime leadership member suggested that Craig could remain no matter what — giving GOP leaders a headache.

If Craig can clear his name in Minnesota court quickly, McConnell told reporters, “it will be his intent to get back to the Senate, deal with whatever Ethics Committee case he knows he’ll have and serve out his term.”

McConnell, who spoke with Craig on Wednesday, appeared eager to change the subject from the Craig flap, which has become fodder for late-night talk shows and an albatross for Republicans. “My view remains [that Craig] made the difficult but correct decision to resign,” the GOP leader said.

During the conversation, McConnell added, Craig appeared set against running for reelection. That conclusion appeared reminiscent of the Kentuckian’s Tuesday comment that Craig’s intent to step down seemed “firm,” followed hours later by Craig’s announcement that he was reconsidering his resignation.

While noting that “there really is no clarity on what Sen. Craig intends to do,” NRSC spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said: “Sen. Ensign believes Sen. Craig did the right thing in resigning and takes him at his word.”

One GOP aide summed up the party’s sentiment: “Craig is the only person who doesn’t know he’s done.”    

Current and former Craig staffers, however, feel that Craig has been treated atrociously by GOP leadership, particularly given his loyalty to his party, according to sources close to the senator.

“Sen. Craig has been someone who’s been a tremendous asset to the caucus for his talent and loyalty to other members,” said one former staffer. “I think there was a surprise that he was thrown under the bus.”

Craig supported Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) during his 2002 struggle after controversial comments on segregation and backed Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) in his battle with conservative activists over the Judiciary Committee chairmanship. In 2004, Craig relinquished his seat on the committee so GOP leaders could add conservative Sen. Tom CoburnTom Coburn-trillion debt puts US fiscal house on very shaky ground Al Franken: 'I make fun of the people who deserved it' The more complex the tax code, the more the wealthy benefit MORE (R-Okla.).

Lott has refrained from calling for Craig’s resignation and Specter has become the Idahoan’s most ardent backer, urging Craig to fight for his seat and speaking about the scandal during Wednesday’s policy luncheon.

Craig allies also are stung by what they see as the hypocrisy of the GOP leadership. For example, a former Craig staffer noted that Sen. David VitterDavid VitterYou're fired! Why it's time to ditch the Fed's community banker seat Overnight Energy: Trump set to propose sharp cuts to EPA, energy spending Former La. official tapped as lead offshore drilling regulator MORE (R-La.) was met with applause when he attended the weekly GOP Senate lunch after he admitted to seeing a prostitute.

“There absolutely is a double standard,” said one former staffer who spoke with Craig shortly before the press conference where he announced his intent to resign. McConnell has said Craig’s guilty plea necessitated the strong leadership response, but Craig’s supporters are not buying the argument.

One source close to Craig said the charge of homosexuality was the reason for the different treatment. “If what Larry was accused of doing was tawdry, so was the treatment of him by leadership,” this source said.

Vitter said on Wednesday that resigning was “a decision for [Craig] to make, it seems like.” But when asked about the perceived double standard, Vitter abruptly departed without a response.

Several senators refused to comment on their missing colleague, including Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who is grappling with a federal investigation, Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeA third of Congress hasn’t held a town hall — it’s time to take action Anonymous affiliate publishes claimed list of GOP private contact info Wasting America’s nuclear opportunity MORE (R-Okla.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies Republicans are headed for a disappointing end to their year in power Obama's HHS secretary could testify in Menendez trial MORE (D-Nev.), who directed questions on Craig to the Republicans.

“There’s a court of law and a court of public opinion,” Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said. “I fully understand his plans to clear his name in the court of law, but I fear for him in … the court of public opinion.”

Added Smith, who faces a tough campaign in 2008: “If this story doesn’t get smaller, it will get bigger.”

The next chapter of the story may be derived in the Ethics Committee, where members confirmed their preliminary inquiry into Craig’s June arrest in a letter sent to GOP leaders this week. Craig pleaded guilty in August to disorderly conduct after the arresting officer alleged that the senator used signals to solicit sexual contact in a Minneapolis airport bathroom.

Former House Democratic ethics counsel Stan Brand, who represents Craig on Ethics Committee issues, wrote to the panel on Wednesday seeking the dismissal of a complaint filed against the Idahoan by his own party leaders. Brand and partner Andrew Herman argued that the Ethics panel lacks jurisdiction over misdemeanors, such as Craig’s, without a direct connection to official duties.

Nonetheless, the Minnesota charging document states that Craig flashed his Senate business card to the arresting officer, and Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) suggested that the Ethics Committee might examine whether Craig’s behavior amounted to “acting in a way that brings discredit to the institution.”

“Any reconsideration [from Craig] would be a mistake,” Bennett added. “Once you announce you’re resigning, you can’t take it back.”

Brand challenged the invocation of any standard of discredit to the Senate.

“The Senate has never disciplined someone under that provision of the code without an independent basis for violation of some standard for egregious conduct, like treason, bribery, financial mismanagement, et cetera,” Brand said. “I don’t think [it] should start now.”

Yet in their letter sent to GOP leaders this week, Ethics Chairwoman Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerTrump riles Dems with pick for powerful EPA job Pelosi's chief of staff stepping down Time is now to address infrastructure needs MORE (D-Calif.) and Vice Chairman John CornynJohn CornynGun proposal picks up GOP support House bill set to reignite debate on warrantless surveillance Republicans jockey for position on immigration MORE (R-Texas) effectively confirmed their jurisdiction over Craig’s case, while noting that the inquiry would close if he resigns.

“The Senate ‘may discipline a member for any misconduct, including conduct or activity which does not relate to official duties …’” Boxer and Cornyn wrote.

Despite the outcome of Craig’s Minnesota court challenge, most agreed that the Capitol ethics probe is unlikely to resolve itself by Sept. 30.

“It’s usually more deliberative than that,” said Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsThe Hill's Whip List: Republicans try again on ObamaCare repeal No. 2 Senate Republican backs McConnell in Trump fight Overnight Healthcare: McConnell warns Senate not to block repeal debate | Insurers knock Cruz proposal | WH tries to discredit CBO | Lawmakers propose .1B NIH funding boost MORE (R-Kan.), a former Ethics Committee chairman. “It’s a process.”    

The committee may have ample time to do its work. Some Craig staffers say they believe he regrets caving to the intense pressure from GOP leaders last week that led to his resignation announcement Saturday.

Staffers also say they believe the wording was intentional, and think Craig will fight to remain in the Senate at least as long as he fights his legal battle.

“He’s smart and tenacious. He’s not one to back down from a fight,” a former staffer said.

Still, even those sympathetic to Craig think it will be tough for him to survive.

“I can’t fathom how he can stay in the Senate,” said one friend ofthe senator’s.

Aaron Blake contributed to this report.