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Probe Winner: Stabenow

Michigan political watchers were surprised to find freshman Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) among the list of Members reprimanded by the House ethics committee last week.

But any talk of the wrist slap tarnishing her rising star is just wishful thinking by Democrats, they say.

Still, the ethics committee’s decision in the case of whether Republican leaders attempted to bribe Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) for his vote in favor of a GOP Medicare bill last year was probably good news for Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who is up for re-election in 2006.

Smith and Miller are the most prominent Republicans mentioned as possible challengers to the freshman Senator, and any negative publicity surrounding them only boosts her re-election prospects.

Miller, Smith and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) were “admonished,” the least severe punishment possible, by the ethics panel in connection with allegations that Members made threats and offered bribes to Smith in exchange for his cooperation on last year’s Medicare vote.

Republican leaders left open the vote to add prescription drug coverage to the governmental health care plan for the elderly for almost three hours as they tried to persuade defectors to get on board with President Bush’s plan.

After much arm-twisting, the plan passed in the wee hours of the morning without Smith’s help.

Smith, who is retiring, alleged that someone offered him $100,000 for his son’s Congressional candidacy and threatened retribution against Brad Smith if the Congressman did not vote for the plan.

That set off an investigation that led the ethics committee to declare last week that DeLay and Miller acted inappropriately and that Nick Smith exaggerated the threats and bribes.

Brad Smith lost the Republican primary to succeed his father in August.

Bill Ballenger, publisher of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, predicted that the wrist slap would have no long-term political effect in the Great Lake State.

“This thing is a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ one-day story that is unlikely to be discussed again,” he said.

If Miller decides to challenge Stabenow in 2006 and if Democrats effectively make an issue of her involvement in the Smith case, maybe they could get some traction against her, Ballenger said. But he added that the entire scenario is extremely doubtful.

“It was a big surprise, seemingly even to her, because there was never any whisper that she was involved,” Ballenger said of the committee’s finding that Miller threatened Smith on the House floor. “It won’t have any effect this year; if it does down the line, it’s way too early to say.”

Miller would not comment for this story, but she told the Detroit Free Press on Friday that she did not think she had done anything wrong.

“I guess what I’m being admonished for is intimidating Nick Smith,” the paper quoted the former Michigan secretary of state as saying. “Well, if a black belt can be intimidated by an overweight, middle-age woman, that’s too bad.”

(Miller said that Smith is well-versed in martial arts.)

“If the standard is I’m not allowed to tell a Member I won’t support a member of their family on the floor, then I won’t do it on the floor,” she added.

In her official statement on the ethics report she said: “I have read the committee’s report and accept their findings that I may have committed a ‘discreet violation of the rules.’ I also agree with the committee’s finding that there was no evidence adduced of a pattern of misconduct. It is now time to move on from this matter to important business on behalf of the people.”

Michigan Democrats were not so quick to dismiss the public scolding.

“This just adds to what we think is a pretty tarnished ethical record,” said Mike Brewer, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party. “It really goes to her character and values. She made this threat on the floor of the House. She’d be subject to criminal prosecution if it happened off the House floor.”

In testimony before the ethics committee, Miller recalled that she told Smith on the night of the November vote: “Well, I hope your son doesn’t come to Congress or I’m not going to support your son, or something to that effect.”

The committee concluded that: “Rep. Smith fairly interpreted Rep. Miller’s statements to him during the vote as a threat of retaliation against him for voting in opposition to the bill.”

While Ballenger and others have said they do not think Miller’s career will be hamstrung by the revelations, Ballenger said the committee’s conclusions could prevent Smith from challenging Stabenow.

“If he has hopes of running for Senate this probably puts somewhat of a damper on it in his own mind,” Ballenger said, adding that he does not foresee the 69-year-old Congressman seeking office again anyway.

“That’s just not going to happen,” Ballenger said. “I would be very, very surprised. I only see him running if the Republican Party literally throws in the towel against Stabenow and just puts up a sacrificial lamb.”

Brewer said the committee’s findings are embarrassing for Smith but not that damaging.

“He was the subject of the threats but they did find he exaggerated the threats — he does not come out looking great,” Brewer said. If anything, he was “guilty of bad judgment but he didn’t make the threat; [Miller] did.”

Smith also did not want to comment for this story.

Ballenger said the entire episode is moot as he does not think either Smith or Miller will seek Stabenow’s Senate seat in 2006.

“There isn’t a logical Republican” Senate candidate, he said.

Republicans find themselves in a bad position “because anybody who could run for governor or Senator all have terms ending in 2006,” Ballenger added. “They would have to give up being secretary of state or attorney general or [U.S.] Representative for long shots against … people with high approval ratings.”

Asked if Stabenow and the Democrats should breathe easier in light of Miller’s and Smith’s misfortunes, Ballenger said: “Stabenow is probably breathing at exactly the same rate she was last week and will be next week.”

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