Senate Takes Wait-And-See Approach

Posted July 30, 2008 at 6:40pm

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) returned to the Senate chamber Wednesday to warm handshakes, hugs and words of encouragement from most his colleagues, a day after the 84-year-old lawmaker was indicted by a federal grand jury on seven felony counts stemming from a corruption investigation in his home state.

Stevens, the longest-serving Republican Senator in history, is accused of making false statements about $250,000 in gifts he received from an oil company. The ongoing investigation — in its fourth year — has swept up not only the Senator but his son Ben; his former chief of staff, Trevor McCabe; executives from the oil firm and a handful of state lawmakers.

Although most of his colleagues declined to offer support for the veteran appropriator, the clubby Senate — if not rallying around their indicted colleague — at least maintained a wait-and-see posture. His return is markedly different from that of Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who saw GOP leaders turn on him almost immediately after reports that he had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges stemming from a sex sting at the Minneapolis airport.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans seemed prepared Wednesday to question Stevens’ activities, let alone call for his resignation, as many did for Craig.

Craig was ostracized immediately after Roll Call reported that he had pleaded guilty attempting to arrange for sex in the men’s bathroom of the Minneapolis airport. He contends he was not guilty and pleaded guilty in a panic.

At the time, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republicans called for an ethics investigation. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) called on Craig to resign from the Senate, and McConnell, Ensign and others in the GOP privately fought Craig’s decision to reverse his initial decision to leave the Senate.

Craig also received a chilly response from his colleagues upon returning to the floor after last year’s August recess, standing alone in the middle of the chamber for several long minutes during a roll-call vote as Republicans hurried past him. It was only after Craig approached his colleagues that many acknowledged him, and it took months before many would greet him on the floor or in the hallways.

Leadership stripped Craig of his ranking member positions on committees, although the Senate GOP rules state that lawmakers are only required to relinquish those positions when they have been indicted on felony charges.

Asked about the difference, Craig said: “I listened to all of this and decided not to be a critic of either side. There were too many critics when my issue came along, and I don’t think I can lend myself to this one.”

On Tuesday, Stevens resigned from his ranking member posts on the Commerce Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. On Commerce, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) will replace him, while Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) will take his Appropriations slot.

During roll-call votes Tuesday, Members from both parties approached Stevens on the floor: Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), John Thune (R-S.D.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who offered a hug.

Seeing Stevens, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) exclaimed “Say it ain’t so!” to his longtime colleague.

Republicans have, however, begun cutting financial ties to the Alaskan, particularly those in leadership or in tough re-election races this year. The campaigns for McConnell, Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Cornyn (Texas), Sens. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), John Sununu (R-N.H.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) all announced they were donating to charity contributions from Stevens’ political action committee. GOP aides predicted more Members would follow suit.

Although Ensign, McConnell and most of the chambers’ other Members avoided endorsing Stevens, they also stepped gingerly around his status.

Asked whether he thought Stevens should resign, Ensign would say only, “There is a process that is in place and we’re letting the process play out,” referring to Stevens’ primary. Asked what differences leadership saw in the two situations, Ensign repeated, “There is a process that is in place, and we’re letting the process play out.”

One high-ranking Senate Republican source said leadership was not considering asking Stevens to resign or withdraw from the race. He is facing a difficult re-election and his indictment makes that prospect considerably more difficult.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said Stevens political future is “up to him,” not his GOP colleagues. “I don’t have the luxury of making that determination. It’s his decision.”

Burr said the difference between Stevens and Craig is clear, saying: “Larry pled guilty. Due process is something entitled to everyone in this country.”

Senate leadership has taken the same posture with Stevens, expressing sadness and calling for the presumption of innocence.

Alexander, who called the indictments “a sad, serious situation” declined to speculate on why leadership has taken such different positions on the two instances.

“[Stevens] has done what the Conference rules say he should do,” Alexander said.

Erin P. Billings and Emily Pierce contributed to this report.