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Ensign to Face the Music

Embattled Republican Will Address Colleagues Today

Sen. John Ensign (Nev.) is expected to address his GOP colleagues at their weekly luncheon today to try to turn the page on the high-profile sex scandal that has derailed his rising political career.

While no one knows exactly what Ensign will say to his fellow Senators, the move is becoming an increasingly familiar one for embattled Republicans. Sen. David Vitter (La.) and former Sens. Ted Stevens (Alaska) and Larry Craig (Idaho), while facing scandals of their own, went before the Conference to discuss their respective situations.

Ensign, 51, admitted June 16 to having an affair with former staffer Cynthia Hampton, who worked on his campaign committee and is married to his former Administrative Assistant and longtime friend Doug Hampton. The affair was said to have taken place from December 2007 to August 2008. Both Hamptons left Ensign’s personal and campaign payrolls in April of last year.

Details continue to emerge about the relationship, but accusations have surfaced that Doug Hampton attempted to extort money from Ensign and tried to shop the story of the affair to the media. The scandal has prompted at least one call for an ethics inquiry and sparked concerns from Senate Republicans, who, while continuing to stand by Ensign, are eager to put the negative headlines behind them.

“It would definitely be the preference of everyone in the Conference to have everything come to light right away so it can be dealt with— rather than have the issue drag out for days or weeks, a senior Republican aide said Monday. However, this aide said, Republican Senators remain by and large supportive of their beleaguered colleague.

“I think he’s made the appropriate steps. Now it’s all personal,— Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said.

Until last week, Ensign had served as the GOP Policy Committee chairman, the No. 4 Conference leadership job. Up for re-election in 2012, he has given no indication that he plans to resign his Senate seat.

Ensign returned to Capitol Hill on Monday.

“They all feel a certain degree of sympathy for his situation. … It’s not like the Conference is at a stage where they just don’t want the guy there — yet,— the GOP aide said.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said Ensign’s decision to give up his position as Policy Committee chairman shows he is taking some important steps to move forward.

“He’s taken a substantial step. He stepped down from his leadership position, which I consider an act of contrition,— Alexander said.

No Senator has called on Ensign to resign, and Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) said Republicans have had no discussions about trying to push him out of the Conference. “I have heard no discussions. … Nothing but support,— Corker said, adding that he and other Members “appreciate the way he was really stand-up about this.—

Other Republicans privately said Ensign could have handled the situation better, saying they would have preferred he not announce the affair at a press conference 30 minutes before local news outlets went on the air, engage in a war of words with the Hamptons and return to Washington less than a week after the scandal broke. “You could definitely say— the handling of the scandal has been more frustrating for GOP Senators than the affair itself, a second Republican aide said.

Those frustrations didn’t appear obvious on the floor Monday night, however. Ensign was received warmly by his Senate colleagues — Democrats and Republicans alike.

Several of his fellow Republicans approached the Nevadan, shaking his hand while appearing to offer words of encouragement.

At one point, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Ensign’s housemate in Washington, D.C., motioned for Ensign to follow him, and the two sat at couple of desks on the floor and appeared to engage in a private conversation. The discussion appeared friendly, although it lasted for about five minutes and involved more than Coburn welcoming Ensign back after a week away from the Senate.

A few of Ensign’s Democratic colleagues soon followed, including Sens. Bill Nelson (Fla.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), John Kerry (Mass.), who talked with Ensign for a few minutes and shook his hand more than once, and finally Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who also talked to Ensign at length.

Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), a conservative Republican who is running for governor in 2010, was among the first to talk to Ensign after he emerged from the Cloakroom. Also walking up to Ensign and appearing to offer words of encouragement were Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Sen. John Thune (S.D.) — who is poised to replace Ensign as GOP Policy Committee chairman — National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) and GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Roger Wicker (Miss.) and others.

Whatever the political fallout for Ensign, his ill-timed announcement did seem to have some immediate, albeit minor, legislative implications. The acknowledgement of the affair last week came just as the Senate began considering a travel promotion bill that carries major benefits for the Silver State, a popular tourism destination.

The bill is a top priority for Ensign and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who co-sponsored the measure that would create public-private partnerships to boost tourism spending nationwide. During the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s consideration of the bill last month, Ensign noted that the bill would help the country’s economy, especially in his state.

“Nevada’s economy relies on tourism, and with so many Nevada families struggling, now is the time to send the Travel Promotion Act to the president’s desk,— Ensign said. “This means jobs at a time when we have double-digit unemployment.—

But Ensign was absent last week to vote on procedural motions on the bill when a handful of his GOP colleagues railed against the measure and criticized the Democratic leadership for not allowing any Republican amendments.

Without his GOP ally present to do his bidding, Reid was forced to run out the clock on the measure and file back-to-back procedural motions to pass the legislation.

When the measure came back up on Monday night, supporters of the tourism legislation were beaten on a resounding 53-34 vote, with Ensign and only a handful of other Republicans crossing lines to vote for cloture on the bill.

David M. Drucker contributed to this report.

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