Senate GOP quiet on Ensign

Senate Republicans are not rushing to defend Sen. John Ensign after revelations his parents paid $96,000 to his mistress and her family.

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Ensign’s colleagues have taken a markedly different approach to Ensign this week than they did when he acknowledged the affair with former aide Cindy Hampton last month. His GOP colleagues at that time rallied around Ensign and fended off talk of his resignation.

On Thursday, however, not a single Republican approached in the Senate would openly defend him.

GOP Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah said the caucus is concerned about a “trickle” effect in which more information about Ensign will slowly emerge.

“We have learned from all of these that you don’t get all the facts,” Bennett said. “Maybe we do, but maybe there’s still more to it. I would think the reticence of people to comment has more to do with not wanting to make a statement and then discover there’s more facts to come out.”

So far, no prominent Republicans in the Silver State have called on Ensign to resign, leading some GOP strategists in the state to think that he can weather the storm.

“It’s definitely being played up and being used by anybody who’s running against a Republican, but most of the people I talk to are not calling for his resignation,” said political consultant Randi Thompson.

Nevada political watcher Jon Ralston, who interviewed Hampton this week, said calls for Ensign's ouster could mount privately in the Republican Party.

“I have to believe that [Sen.] Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) wasn't exactly thrilled to get the  phone calls he got this week. He looks very foolish,” Ralston said of the Oklahoma Republican, Ensign's former housemate. Hampton said Coburn was present during several key moments during the affair.

Thompson also said she senses a reluctance of the GOP establishment to embrace Ensign.

“It stunned people, no doubt, and there is that caution, like ‘What’s next?’ “ she said. “That’s why there’s very little speculation about his future. People don’t want to go out there and say they love this guy and then be embarrassed again.”

Ensign attended votes in the chamber on Thursday after news broke of his family’s payments. But he mostly remained holed up in a hideaway office and took rear staircases back and forth to the floor.

Neither Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — a friend who supported Ensign last month after the initial admission — nor Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would comment Thursday on Ensign’s political future. Reid simply shook his head when asked, and McConnell ignored the question.

Likewise, when asked to assess Ensign’s political survival, both Bennett and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) described that as an unanswered question that only Nevada voters can decide.

Ensign last month made a brief apology to his fellow Republicans at a closed-door caucus lunch, acknowledging his conduct had embarrassed the Senate and expressing remorse. He was met with a round of applause, and GOP senators repeatedly described his comments to reporters as genuine and sincere.

Other prominent GOP senators who defended Ensign last month are now taking the same hands-off approach when asked if he should resign. John Thune of South Dakota, who took over the position Ensign resigned as chairman of the GOP Policy Committee, declined to defend him to reporters late Thursday, and Orrin Hatch of Utah, who last month rallied to Ensign’s side by declaring “everybody has flaws,” also wouldn’t repeat that stance.

“I’m not going to talk about Sen. Ensign,” Hatch said. “I’m just not going to get involved.”

Reid Wilson contributed to this story.