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Ensign Plays the Enforcer

When GOP leaders learned last week that sex-scandal-plagued Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) would defy his own resignation promise and instead remain in the Senate through 2008, they went into immediate damage-control mode.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) quickly worked the floor to advise his Republican colleagues to keep their reactions to the news short and simple. Just tell reporters that the matter is now before the Senate Ethics Committee, McConnell instructed.

Almost simultaneously, however, another party leader, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.), was playing the enforcer, delivering a scathing public rebuke of Craig and demanding that the Idaho Senator honor earlier pledges to step down. Ensign held nothing back, even calling for open Ethics panel hearings into the charges that Craig engaged in lewd activity in a Minneapolis airport bathroom.

Ensign’s handling of the Craig ordeal was only the latest and most prominent example of how the head of the Senate Republicans’ political arm recently has become one of the GOP’s most aggressive players. He not only jumped headfirst into the party’s thorniest public relations battle of the year, but also has recently waded willingly into some of his leadership’s more contentious legislative fights.

Ensign insists his approach to the Senate hasn’t changed, saying he’s always been apt to take a stand when he believes it’s the right thing to do. And, he added, his positions on the Craig matter and other legislative issues this year are ones he would have taken regardless of whether he was chairman of the NRSC.

“I don’t think I’m doing anything differently,” Ensign stressed Tuesday. “It’s just now, I’m in a higher-profile position than I was when I was very new to the Senate.”

Ensign noted that he’s had a history of controversial battles — from being a major player in trying to defeat a GOP-backed asbestos bill to standing alone in trying to stop Democratic efforts to extend federal unemployment benefits in the face of an improving economy. He’s also been out front on controversial telecommunications reform legislation when it wasn’t the most popular, he argued.

“From the first time I got elected to the House of Representatives, that’s what I’ve tried to do and that’s what I try to do on a daily basis — act on principles,” Ensign said.

That may be, but Ensign’s colleagues still are taking note. Privately, Republicans suggested that just like Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Ensign is expected to be one of his party’s leading political pit bulls. And they certainly don’t mind if Ensign is willing to jump into the heart of a battle.

“It signals to the media and to supporters how the leadership views challenges and issues through a campaign lens,” said a senior Senate leadership aide.

“If you look at him and his role, he’s a natural fit for these tasks,” added another Republican Senate aide. “He can say, ‘I’m the NRSC chair and I have to.’”

Ensign’s positioning hasn’t stopped with the recent Craig imbroglio. He also has taken a lead in waging what’s likely to be the Bush administration’s unpopular fight to attach means testing to the Medicare prescription drug benefit, and recently inserted himself into the stewing controversy over the fate of a bipartisan campaign finance bill that seeks to force Senate candidates to file their reports electronically.

In offering up a potentially killer amendment to the filing bill late last month, Ensign became the target of much speculation that he was doing the leadership’s dirty work in trying to effectively kill the measure, or that he had long been behind an anonymous hold of the legislation.

“His primary role is to make the base happy,” suggested another Republican Senate staffer. “He’s in a good position to be the guy who is looking out for the base, looking out for our supporters, looking out for the donors — that’s his job.”

Ensign assumed the chairmanship of the NRSC in January after a stunning six-seat loss that cost his party the Senate majority. It was no secret that Ensign didn’t want the job heading into a daunting 2008 cycle, but he ultimately accepted the duty amid much cajoling and promises for better committee slots and upward mobility from McConnell.

It remains unclear whether McConnell — who often eschews controversy and has one eye on his own re-election next year — deliberately has looked to Ensign to be the newest party enforcer. Those close to both Ensign and the Minority Leader say no and they insist that Ensign is “no shrinking violet” and long has injected himself into hotly contested topics such as Social Security and immigration reform.

“People are just noticing it more now,” said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart, adding that he would “disabuse people of” the notion that Ensign is acting at anyone’s behest.

“I think whether he’s in leadership or not, he would be out there pretty strong,” Stewart said.

Ensign was emphatic that he took no orders from anyone in the Craig saga, saying that his decision to get out front “was 100 percent on my own.”

“He promised us that if that guilty plea wasn’t overturned, he would resign his Senate seat and I called on him to keep his word,” Ensign said.

But Ensign’s public declaration certainly did fill a need for his fellow GOP leaders, especially since it’s been no secret how they feel about Craig’s decision to stick around. Indeed, the top elected leaders joined together when the news first hit in August about the scandal, agreeing to strip Craig of his senior committee seats and call for an ethics inquiry into the allegations.

One thing seems evident, however: With or without a directive, Ensign appears to have his leader’s blessing as he inserts himself into the center of the storm.

“From [McConnell’s] standpoint, it’s safer to send someone else out there,” said a GOP Senate source.

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