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Support for Stevens Tepid

One day after FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents spent 10 hours searching his Alaska home, Sen. Ted Stevens (R) found little comfort Tuesday in the Capitol, where he spent much of the day being chased by reporters and received a decidedly cool reception from the bulk of his colleagues.

Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was one of only a few lawmakers to quickly come to Stevens’ defense. “We all know Ted Stevens as a good man, a tireless advocate for improving the quality of life in Alaska — a decorated veteran and a true patriot of our country. He’s asked us to await all information during this investigation, and I will, while I’m standing by our longest-serving colleague,” Lott said in a statement.

Most of Lott’s colleagues, however, took a decidedly more measured approach, calling for caution in judgments while avoiding blunt statements of support.

For instance, fellow Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski urged the public to allow the investigation to continue before drawing conclusions. “There is a process underway and no one should jump to conclusions,” she said, though she was quick to add that neither she nor her staff have been contacted by authorities, and she told reporters that she has not discussed the raid or the broader investigation with Stevens.

“No, we have not had conversations” about the issue, she said.

While few Republicans rushed to Stevens’ defense Tuesday, even fewer were willing to condemn their veteran Alaska colleague in the wake of Monday’s raids.

Lott and others dismissed calls by watchdog groups — including Taxpayers for Common Sense and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington — for Stevens to step down at least temporarily from his positions on the Appropriations and Commerce, Science and Transportation committees, arguing that such a decision would be premature and that leadership should allow the process to unfold more fully before deciding on his fate.

“How far does this go?” Lott asked. “If you’re accused in a newspaper article, are you expected to step down? In the past, you at least waited until you were indicted” before Members were pulled from committees.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a close friend and hunting partner of Stevens, agreed. “I think that’d be premature. Sen. Stevens has had a distinguished career and I would think he would have the benefit of any doubt.”

Indeed, Stevens seemed to garner the most sympathy from Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) dismissed any calls for Stevens to be taken off his committees and seemed to downplay the seriousness of the investigation itself. “We have to be very careful about punishing people during an investigation. Many investigations go nowhere,” Reid said, adding, “just because someone is under investigation doesn’t mean they’ll be punished in the United States Senate.”

At the same time, however, GOP Senators acknowledged the allegations surrounding the Stevens scandal are unwelcome after what’s become an endless string of public relations headaches for the party.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said Stevens’ woes and their effects on the GOP are part of a broader problem with the culture in Washington, D.C., and linked the controversy to the ongoing fight over earmarking.

“The real core of the problem — and I mean, Ted Stevens is a friend of mine and I hope none of this stuff is true, obviously — but even in that accusation, at the core of that, is earmarks,” DeMint said. “It has been with [former Rep.] Duke Cunningham [R-Calif.] who basically had a ‘here’s how much you have to give me for a certain level of earmarks’ and that’s just what we discovered. I think for years on some level it’s been going on with staff. As long as we can throw around millions of dollars, that’s where the corruption comes from. You don’t corrupt somebody with a $50 lunch.”

As for the party’s PR problems, Lott said, “I’d like to say that I think this too shall pass.”

“We could use some better news,” conceded Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “We may help ourselves by focusing on the big issues like Iraq, health care, education … that’s the best way to make some good news for ourselves.”

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) suggested, “Sometimes when you’re in a funk, you just get deeper,” noting that “politics is a game of peaks and valleys, and right now we’re in a bit of a valley [and] we’ve been there for a while.” But Thune said he remains hopeful that this fall’s spending and tax fights — which he said are “always good for us” — will help Republicans get out of their rut.

In the near term, even as the GOP keeps trying to sharpen its edge on the policy front, the recent FBI and IRS search of Stevens’ home aren’t allowing a breakthrough. What’s more, Republicans have spent much of July suffering through other high-profile headlines like the mounting criticism over the truthfulness of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the scandal surrounding Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) connection with the “D.C. Madam.”

Lott said that in the face of what seems to be an unfortunate recent pattern for his party, there couldn’t be a better time for Congress to break for the four-week August recess.

“I think it’s wise to follow the Iraqi Parliament and go home and maybe our attitude will improve,” Lott said.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) agreed, saying Congress in general is suffering from the public’s frustration with “the body politic” and all Senators could benefit from a break.

“Getting out of Washington and going home will be good for everybody,” Coleman said.

Back in Alaska, the raid on Stevens’ home appears to have increased interest among Republicans and Democrats alike in challenging the veteran lawmaker next year should he run for re-election.

Mike Miller, a former state legislator who challenged Murkowski for the GOP Senate nomination in 2004, said he and other Alaska Republicans are considering the race.

“I’m still thinking about it,” Miller said. “We’re just in the very beginning stages.”

Miller said that despite Stevens’ legal problems, would-be primary opponents remain cautious.

“Sen. Stevens is still quite a force to be reckoned with in Alaska,” Miller said. “Sen. Stevens has been around a long time, he has built up a lot of folks within the party.”

Miller said his last experience showed him how difficult it is to run against the state party’s preferred candidate.

“Having gone through the race with Lisa Murkowski and running against the party, it’s is not the easiest thing to do,” he added.

Likewise, Democrats said they were continuing to move forward and said that while the raid does not necessarily impact decisions on who may run, it is a contributing factor.

“The incident doesn’t necessarily speed up or slow down any thought process that I’m in, but it continues to put a cloud over our delegation and its ability to represent Alaska,” said Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D).

Begich is contemplating a Senate bid and will announce his decision in a month “give or take,” he said. “It’s important that the decision not be made based on a moment in time.”

Begich said the ongoing federal investigations cast the state in a poor light and distracts lawmakers from doing their jobs.

“In 2008 either Ted Stevens or [Rep.] Don Young [R] are going to have very competitive races,” he predicted.

Nicole Duran and Emily Pierce contributed to this report.

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