Sen. Craig Decision Poses Dilemma for GOP

Sen. Larry Craig will continue Senate term but not run for reelection in '08.

February 12, 2009, 11:17 AM

Oct. 5, 2007 — -- The White House reacted to the decision by embattled Republican Senator Larry Craig's decision to stay in the Senate despite the fact the Idaho senator announced last month his intention to step down.

"We think this is a decision between senator Craig, his constituents, his colleagues in the senate and it's a decision for him to make and them to decide," said White House spokesperson Tony Fratto on Friday.

Last month President Bush talked to Craig by phone when he announced his intention to resign his seat, and the President told him he made the right decision.

"We had said we believe he made the right decision for himself and his constituents and that hasn't changed but at this point it's a decision for sen Craig, his colleagues and constituents of [Idaho] ... I don't think our position has changed, but it's something that has to be worked out in the Senate," Fratto said.

Arousing the ire of his Republican colleagues, Craig reneged on a pledge to resign from the Senate, announcing Thursday afternoon that despite a judge's refusal to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea, he would remain in the Senate. A member of the Senate Republican leadership immediately denounced Craig's decision, calling the situation "embarrassing" and suggesting that Craig's change of mind was dishonorable.

The conservative Republican was arrested in June in a men's room sex sting operation near the Snoopy statue at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Charged with disorderly conduct, Craig pleaded guilty in August and since then has established a pattern of pledging to resign and then changing his mind.

Craig cited three reasons why he would remain in the Senate, while fellow Republicans have suggested in strong terms that he should leave. Craig claims that since he returned to the Senate three weeks ago, "I have seen that it is possible for me to work here effectively."

Senate leaders last month stripped Craig of leadership roles on committee assignments while he remains under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee. Craig also cited his "seniority and important committee assignments that are valuable to Idaho" as a reason he will remain.

"A replacement would be highly unlikely to obtain these posts" on the Appropriations Committee, Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Veterans' Affairs Committee, Craig explained.

Craig also said he would remain in the Senate in an "effort to clear my name in the Senate Ethics Committee - something that is not possible if I am not serving in the Senate."

The decision did not seem to go over well among Republicans on the Hill, many of whom have made it clear they want Craig to go.

"He ought to keep his word," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

"It's a distraction," said Sen. John Thune, R-SD.

"The original decision (to resign) was the right thing to do," added Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.

But by far the harshest words came from Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in remarks many interpreted to be reflective of what Senate GOP Leadership as a whole feels.

"He said that if the judge would reverse his guilty plea he would fight on, if not he would resign from the Senate and remember -- that was going to be effective at the end of September," said Ensign. "He had his day in court, the judge ruled against him, and I'm calling on Senator Craig to keep his word," said Ensign.

"It's the right thing to do for the Senate, it's the right thing to do for his party," Ensign said, adding that he "could not feel more strongly about it. I think it would be a mistake to put the Senate through an Ethics investigation process that potentially could lead to public hearings. It's embarassing for the Senate, it's embarassing for our party."

Asked why a senator should resign for pleading guilty to a misdemeanor, Ensign said, "this is not just an ordinary misdemeanor charge. …the type of behavior that we're talking about here is not exactly something that I think senators should be engaged in." Ensign added that Senate leaders "did not have the authority under our rules" to kick Craig out of the Senate. "We do not have any other options except to refer this to the Ethics Committee."

After the scandal first broke, Craig announced his intention to resign from the Senate as of Sept. 30. Craig then changed his mind, deciding to pursue the long shot legal avenue of withdrawing his guilty plea. The senator then announced he would remain in the Senate if he could clear his name before Sept. 30.

Last week, after Judge Charles A. Porter Jr. of Minnesota's Fourth Judicial District announced he would not make a ruling before Sept. 30, Craig said that since the court had "not issued a ruling on my motion to withdraw my guilty plea, for now, I will continue my work in the United States Senate for Idaho."

Porter ruled Thursday -- quite strongly -- against Craig's motion to withdraw his guilty plea. And once again, as is a senator's wont, Craig offered an amendment.

In Porter's 27-page order, he hammered down every explanation Craig had offered to justify withdrawing his August plea of guilty. Porter found Craig's plea accurate, voluntary and intelligent, and ruled that the conviction for disorderly conduct was supported by the evidence and the charge itself is a legitimate one for society to prosecute.

The judge suggested, in fact, that Craig's motion was politically motivated -- which is not a valid legal reason.

Noting that Craig "has not expressed dissatisfaction with the actual terms of his sentence, which consists solely of a financial penalty of $575 provided that he does not commit any same or similar violations for one year," and that Craig did "not challenge the actual validity of the conviction of the fairness or appropriateness of the negotiation," Porter said that the "timing of the motion relative to the social and political events that began when the case became publicized ... makes the motion untimely as it is politically, rather than legally, motivated."

With two months passing between Craig's arrest and his guilty plea, Porter assailed "the defendant's relative diligence in seeking withdrawal" and called "illogical" Craig's argument that he was confused and "was not admitting to have engaged in that conduct" for which Craig was charged when he pleaded guilty.

Patrick Hogan, public affairs director for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which is prosecuting the case, said he was pleased with the ruling. "The ruling continues to hold Sen. Craig accountable for his conduct," Hogan said. "In determining that Sen. Craig's plea is just and binding, the court ensures the plea negotiation process can continue to serve as an effective, efficient tool in the criminal justice system."It remained unclear if Craig would appeal the decision.

Declaring himself "innocent of the charges" Craig said he would "continue to work with my legal team to explore my additional legal options."

The lead attorney representing Craig, Billy Martin, said Craig "is currently considering whether to appeal this decision."

For Republicans fed up with the various corruption and sex scandals in their midst besmirching the legitimate work done by the law-abiding members of the delegation, there was one light at the end of the tunnel: Craig announced that he was sticking by his decision to not run for reelection next November.

At least, that's what he says now.

With contributions by ABC News' Ann Compton, Liz Marlantes and Jennifer Duck.

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