Senate Republicans draw bright line with Craig scandal

The Idaho senator pleaded guilty, while other senators who are under investigation have not been charged with wrongdoing, said GOP leader Mitch McConnell.

While the US Senate is known for its endless deliberations, you wouldn't know it from an unusually swift response to Sen. Larry Craig's legal woes.

Within hours of the announcement that the three-term Idaho Republican had pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct in a solicitation case last June, Senate Republican leaders called for an ethics probe – and, unusually, announced they were doing so.

Soon after, they also asked Senator Craig to give up his ranking member leadership positions on committee assignments. GOP caucus rules provide for this step only after a felony conviction. And they urged, rather than requested, Craig to resign.

When an attorney for Senator Craig appealed to the committee to conclude that there is no precedent for asserting jurisdiction over such conduct, the committee fired off a response the same day that the investigation would go forward.

"I would highly doubt they had even read [Craig attorney] Stan Brand's argument on behalf of Senator Craig before they wrote that letter," says Craig spokesman Dan Whiting, in a statement to the Monitor.

"We agree that the ethics committee has under the rules broad discretion in the cases it can review, but the argument here is that they should not start reviewing senators based on misdemeanor charges unrelated to their official duties. That would open a huge Pandora's box."

The swift move to closure in the Craig case is a sharp contrast to the tack that Republican leaders have taken with two other GOP senators recently caught up in investigations of wrongdoing.

Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana was applauded by his Republican colleagues when he returned to a caucus meeting after admitting he made phone calls to a prostitute service. Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, whose home was recently searched in a federal corruption investigation, appealed to his colleagues to wait until the probe was complete before rushing to judgment – and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle have respected that request.

Attempting to draw a bright line explaining such differences, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told reporters this week that the difference is that Craig pleaded guilty, while Senator Stevens is still under investigation and Senator Vitter has not been charged with a crime.

A leading ethics watchdog group calls that standard disingenuous. "It's a very fine point to say that one person pleaded guilty to a low-level sexual misconduct crime and another didn't get charged, when both have admitted to crimes," says Melanie Sloan, executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

"Just because [Vitter's] conduct seemed to be too long ago to get charged, the underlying conduct is the same. We're just talking about the venue in which they admitted it," she adds.

Senator Craig's legal strategy comes down to this: He says that he exercised poor judgment when he pleaded guilty to charges connected with an investigation of sexual activity in a Minnesota airport men's room, and he is trying to withdraw that guilty plea. At the same time, he has asked the Senate ethics committee not to pursue ethics charges against him. Unless he is able to both withdraw the guilty plea and restore his committee assignments in the Senate, he will resign from the Senate on Sept. 30, spokesman Dan Whiting told the Associated Press on Thursday.

"These investigations would burden the Committee and subject members to consistent standards and burdensome proceedings which would not vindicate any legitimate Senate interest. They would also leave members vulnerable for almost any legal transgression no matter how minor or professionally irrelevant," wrote attorneys Stanley Brand and Andrew Herman in a Sept. 5 letter to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics.

Many senators interviewed for this story would not speak on the record about the Craig case beyond saying it was sad, unfortunate, and inexplicable. But the precedent the case potentially sets for Senate ethics investigations is clearly troubling to some senators and ethics watchdog groups.

"I don't begin to understand it," says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. "But I hope I never get picked up for a speeding ticket. That's also a misdemeanor."

Some legal experts say that the bright line Senate Republicans are attempting to draw in this case has little legal basis.

"Craig has a legitimate point that, regardless of his guilty plea, the underlying crime is relatively minor. What Vitter admitted to is considered a potential felony," says Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School.

"The Senate is allowed to investigate any conduct that would bring disrepute to that body. But there are credible and detailed allegations of corruption by current members of the Senate that have gone without serious investigation," he adds. "This [Craig] case is certainly a departure from past practice."

But from a political standpoint, the issues at stake for Senate Republicans were clearer. No one wants to head into 2008 elections, as they did in 2006, with corruption cases and sex scandals fresh in public thought. The failure of House GOP leaders to deal quickly with a sex scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley (R) of Florida and congressional pages contributed to the Democratic takeover that year, and Senate Republicans didn't want to make the same mistake. On Wednesday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched an ad featuring Craig in a gallery of GOP "bad boys."

The combination of the Vitter revelation and the investigation of Stevens hurt Craig, says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "Republicans weren't going to discipline either of them because the legal process hadn't unfolded, but here was a case where there had been apparent legal closure. It's the example that makes the point that Republicans are willing to sanction people in their caucus who do illegal things."

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