Although Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he will make decisions on how to handle ethics scandals involving several of his Members on a case-by-case basis, the Senate Republican Conference’s internal rules appear to limit the flexibility leadership has in handling these cases.
In recent months three Senate Republicans have become involved in high-profile scandals — Sen. Ted Stevens’ (Alaska) vacation home was raided by federal agents and he is now facing multiple investigations involving at least four federal agencies; Sen. David Vitter (La.) this summer admitted to committing “sin” after his number was found on the phone list of the alleged “D.C. Madam,” although no charges have been filed against him at this point; and this weekend Sen. Larry Craig (Idaho) announced his intent to resign from the Senate at the end of September after the revelation that he had pleaded guilty for disorderly conduct following an incident in a Minneapolis airport bathroom.
McConnell and other Senate GOP leaders called for Craig to step down from several committee and subcommittee positions. Leaders also asked the Ethics Committee to launch an investigation into the affair. So far, McConnell has rejected calls by watchdogs to do the same in the Vitter and Stevens cases.
When asked Tuesday about what the trigger for leadership action would be in the Vitter and Stevens cases, as well as any future ethics troubles, McConnell told reporters that decisions would be made based on the circumstances of each matter. “I think all of these will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis,” McConnell said.
Additionally, McConnell argued that unlike in the Craig case, Vitter’s alleged involvement with the D.C. Madam preceded his time in the Senate, while Stevens has denied any wrongdoing.
“There’s a substantial difference between a conclusion to a matter and allegations that are being denied or behavior that occurred before you even came to the Senate, which I think most Senators would feel was not something that we have jurisdiction over,” McConnell said.
But according to a copy of the Conference’s rules, while McConnell appears to have no official authority to force a member to give up their committee assignments if the member has not been indicted on a felony offense, he would be required to do so if either Stevens or Vitter does end up being indicted.
Specifically, under part D of Conference rule 5, “In the event of an indictment for a felony, the chair/ranking member or elected member of the leadership shall step down until the case is resolved. Upon conviction, the chair/ranking member would automatically be replaced.”
There are no rules in place for indictments or convictions relating to misdemeanor violations for Members, as was the case with Craig. Additionally, while there are no rules in place that would allow McConnell to take action against Vitter at this point, the rule’s language does not distinguish between an indictment for conduct occurring before a Member enters the Senate and activities that occur during their tenure.