By Betsy Rothstein and Elana Schor - 09/07/07 07:40 PM EDT
“I hope I never stub my toe and they throw me under the bus,” Simpson said of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other Republican leaders. “It kind of makes you wonder what party you want to be a member of.”
The five-term House member appeared ready to take himself out of the running for a Senate appointment, even though his name remains on Otter’s short list and Craig veered back on Thursday toward resigning, as planned, on Sept. 30.
Simpson said he would pursue a Senate appointment were it in the best interests of his state, but analysts have agreed that his House seniority and status as an appropriator make Simpson more politically valuable to his state if he stays put.
The frustrated response from Simpson, a longtime ally of House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), also rekindles the embers of House-Senate tension that at times plagued Republicans during their time in the majority.
“If that’s how they treat their own,” Simpson said, referring to Senate GOP leaders’ quick push for Craig to resign, “that tells me they’re more interested in party than individuals, and the party is made up of individuals. How you treat them says a lot about your party.”
Simpson pointed a finger at Craig’s leaders for staying mum on the legal and personal jeopardy facing other GOP senators, including Alaskan Ted Stevens, now under federal investigations, and Louisianan David Vitter, who has admitted contacting an escort service.
“They have people over there [in the Senate Republican Conference] in far worse trouble that they haven’t said a thing about,” Simpson said.
Simpson was not present for Craig’s emotional resignation announcement speech on Saturday, but said he spoke with Craig by phone that day. Simpson emphasized the bond between his and Craig’s families.
McConnell declined to comment on Simpson’s remarks, but Senate Republican sources shrugged off his frustration with their conference’s handling of Craig.
“Who cares what Simpson thinks? He is irrelevant,” one Senate GOP aide said. “We didn’t throw [Craig] under the bus. He lay down in front of it and it ran over him. There is a great deal of compassion for him as a human being and a colleague.
But this is bigger than him and that single Senate seat.”
“Condemning decisions that were met with near unanimous praise inside the conference and out is an obvious political miscalculation,” said another Senate Republican aide. “If the representative truly believes that Senate leadership is the one that deserves criticism in this incident, then his senatorial ambitions are far outweighing reality.”
Simpson fired back hours after Craig’s office acknowledged that the embattled conservative is highly likely to resign this month, rather than stay in the Senate to resolve his Minnesota legal case and a looming Ethics Committee probe.
Initial media reports depicted that acknowledgment as a reversal of Craig’s statement late Tuesday that he may not step down, but Craig spokesman Dan Whiting said the situation has not changed.
“My comments … are no different than what I have been telling people since Tuesday — he expects to resign, but has left a small door open,” Whiting said in an e-mail.
That small door remains the slim chance that Craig can clear his name by Sept. 30 in Minneapolis, where his lawyers intend to seek a reversal of his August plea to disorderly conduct stemming from alleged solicitation of sexual conduct. Craig’s GOP colleagues largely hailed the apparent clarification of his plans.
“The only thing that could’ve ever saved Senator Craig was candor and accountability, and his colleagues are obviously not sensing either,” one GOP aide said.
Reflecting the scandal’s unpredictable nature, however, one member of Craig’s legal team said he believes Craig should stay in office “for as long as it takes in Minnesota.”
“My advice to him would be to fight it,” said Stan Brand of the Brand Law Group, the former House Democratic counsel now representing Craig for Ethics Committee issues.
Brand added that he did not see conflicting reports of Craig’s political future as a sign that the congressional veteran is wavering.
“He’s under siege and responding at different positions: political, legal, public,” Brand said. Like Simpson, Brand expressed disbelief at Republican leaders’ swift isolation of Craig, calling the case “unparalleled” in his career, which has spanned the Abscam, Koreagate and congressional page scandals.
“It’s hard for me to believe [Craig’s treatment from Republicans] is because they’re worried about the public corruption issue,” Brand said.
Sources said Craig is unlikely to return soon to the Capitol, where behind-the-scenes jockeying already has begun to take his places as senior Republican on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and on the Appropriations Committee. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) appears likely to ascend to the veterans’ panel post.
Meanwhile, another ally of Craig’s joined Simpson in defending the beleaguered senator’s honor. The American Land Rights Association (ALRA), a grassroots lobbying group that has worked with Craig to push for private land ownership rights, urged a boycott of the Minneapolis airport where Craig was arrested.
ALRA founder Chuck Cushman said in a message to group members that the Minneapolis airport police “have effectively declared war on the West” in their treatment of Craig.