By Reid Wilson and Aaron Blake - 06/17/09 08:17 PM EDT
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) is maneuvering for the GOP leadership opening left by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who resigned the post Wednesday.
Thune’s office confirmed that the senator has begun making phone calls to leadership and to rank-and-file senators to tell them he will run for Republican Policy Committee chairman.
Sources say the only possible contender for the Policy Committee slot would have been Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who just took over as ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But Sessions has secured promises that he will be named the top Republican on the Budget Committee in the next Congress, essentially pulling him out of contention for the leadership post.
If Thune does ascend the leadership ladder, Senate GOP strategists say, a battle is likely to emerge for his post as vice chairman. Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) are mentioned as potential candidates.
Murkowski’s office confirmed Wednesday that the first-term Alaska senator would run for the vice chairman’s position, but Burr’s office declined to say whether the senator was in the running.
Ensign resigned his leadership spot Wednesday, a day after he admitted his affair with a campaign staffer.
A member of the Senate Republican leadership said that Ensign could have held on to his chairmanship of the Policy Committee but would not have risen much higher in the party, describing Ensign’s presidential ambitions as “eliminated.”
“I don’t think it would have had an effect, because he is well-liked and respected for his substance,” said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.
The GOP lawmaker also said that Ensign could one day become assistant Republican leader, a post now held by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), but predicted that it would be difficult for Ensign to ever become GOP leader.
“We want our leader to be a spokesman and not an issue himself,” the lawmaker said.
A GOP consultant concurred: “I always thought [the White House] was a long shot for him, regardless. But time has a way of healing some of these things, and the way he’s handled it probably is the best way he could have handled it.”
However, the full damage estimate from Ensign’s admission is still months or years from being determined.
The wary reaction of Ensign’s colleagues suggests his political recovery is still a ways off, and his party is concerned about being tarred with the scandals that cost them their majorities in the middle part of the decade.
On Wednesday, Ensign’s GOP colleagues were treading lightly around questions of his future in the chamber.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Ensign’s D.C. housemate, said he had no knowledge of the affair and had no immediate response when asked if Ensign should resign.
In a broader context, though, DeMint acknowledged the GOP’s focus on morality and family values opens the party up to charges of hypocrisy.
“All elected officials have a credibility problem right now, I think, and it’s up to us to earn the trust of the American people,” DeMint said, adding: “People don’t like hypocrites, so we’ve got to live up to what we say.”
“People should view things like this on a personal level,” Kyl said. “Every one of us is a sinner, and that’s what John Ensign said.”
Other GOP senators said very little about Ensign on Wednesday.
“He’s doing what he needs to do as a man,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). “He’s a bright young man, and lots of people make mistakes.”
“I feel for him and his family,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) declined to comment on Ensign other than to praise his leadership ability.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said he supports Ensign’s decision to stay in the Senate.
“I certainly did not urge him to resign his leadership position,” Wicker said. “I think he’ll continue to be a valuable member … I think most members, Republican and Democrat, wish his family all the best.”
The timing of Ensign’s announcement Tuesday was all the more striking considering his visit to the early-presidential caucus state of Iowa a couple of weeks ago. It was his first foray into the presidential dialogue, and he began to capture the imagination of conservative Republicans who are looking for a fresh face.
While some saw Tuesday’s admission foreclosing any potential candidacy for the nation’s top job, others saw it as a well-timed announcement for a man acting on his presidential ambitions and airing his dirty laundry early in the process.
Alexander Bolton and J. Taylor Rushing contributed to this article.