GOP aides say probes to decide Ensign fate

Senior Republican aides say Sen. John Ensign’s (R-Nev.) political future will depend on what actions the Senate Ethics Committee or the Justice Department may take against the lawmaker.

A senior GOP aide said that if the Senate Ethics Committee was not already investigating Ensign, it would be certain to launch a probe now.

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The aide said that Ensign would have to answer the new allegations himself.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to comment about Ensign’s political future during a Friday morning news conference. The session was supposed to be devoted to healthcare reform, but questions soon turned to Ensign.

“I really don’t have any observations to make about the Ensign matter,” McConnell said, reiterating his position after reporters barraged him with persistent questioning. “I don’t think today is a day to make any observations about the matter — it just appeared in the newspaper today.”

Waiting for a review by the Ethics panel would be a similar strategy to the one that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has taken on ethics allegations swirling around Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). Senior House Democratic aides say that Pelosi will not move to strip Rangel of his gavel until the House ethics committee reports on the allegations.

Ensign has been trying to rebuild his image in the wake of acknowledging his affair with a former political aide, Cynthia Hampton, in June. But Ensign’s political prospects took a damaging turn Thursday when The New York Times published a 4,000-word piece bringing to light new details.

The damaging new allegations center on favors Ensign bestowed on his former mistress’s husband, Douglas Hampton, to buy his silence. Douglas Hampton is also a former Ensign aide.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, in June called for the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of Ensign. The group has also requested a Senate Ethics Committee probe.

Ensign’s office did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Republicans have gained political momentum in recent months by criticizing Democratic proposals, and GOP aides said the new revelations about Ensign come as an unwelcome distraction. But a senior GOP aide argued that renewed interest in Ensign would blow over in about three days.

Democratic aides, however, have called The New York Times piece a major political development that tarnishes Ensign’s efforts to rebuild his reputation. One aide said that federal authorities would have to review the allegations.

“Many people thought Ensign had put this away,” said the aide. “I think it’s very unlikely the U.S. attorney and the feds don’t get involved.”

“This is a Republican party that didn’t need this story,” said Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “This is a Republican Party with a pattern of corruption. It’s why voters resoundingly booted them out of office in 2006 and 2008.”

Another GOP aide noted that the story has been slow to catch on with cable news channels other than MSNBC. Indeed, CNN and Fox focused their Friday morning coverage on the elimination of Chicago as a potential host of the 2016 Olympics.

“We have to see how this is all going to shake out — you can’t say what’s going to happen to him based on a newspaper article,” said the senior GOP aide.