GOP elevates Thune, Murkowski after Ensign scandal

Senate Republicans on Thursday unanimously tapped John Thune and Lisa Murkowski for new leadership positions in the wake of John Ensign's resignation due to a sex scandal.

Thune (S.D.) was tapped as GOP Policy Chairman, the position that Ensign held until his admission last week of an affair with a female staffer. Murkowski (Alaska) was tapped to replace Thune as Senate Republican Conference vice chairman.

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Both senators strove to put the best face on two weeks’ worth of bad press for Republicans, given Ensign’s news and Wednesday’s admission of an affair by South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.

Thune said the party has an ambitious agenda in the Senate to not only oppose Democratic ideas but to propose its own.

“I’m very optimistic and frankly hopeful and bullish about our future as a party and as Republicans in the Senate,” Thune said. “I actually think, ‘Yes, we’re in a bit of a hole, but we’re going to dig our way out of it.’"

Thune and Murkowski appeared at an afternoon press conference with GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who dismissed questions from reporters about the impact of the Ensign and Sanford scandals.

“We were sent here to do the people’s business, and that’s what we intend to concentrate on,” McConnell said. “We don’t intend to be distracted by any other issues.”

Thune, who defeated former Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in 2004, is considered a rising star among Senate Republicans. Murkowski — daughter of former Sen. and Gov. Frank Murkowski — has fended off rumors of a Senate challenge from Gov. Sarah Palin (R).

Both Thune and Murkowski are up for reelection next year.

This story was updated at 2:50 p.m.