By lunchtime, the longest-serving Republican senator in history had been indicted on charges that he hid $250,000 in gifts from an oil company looking for favors.
Can it get any worse for the GOP?
“This is very bad for the party,” a retiring Senate Republican told Politico as news of Ted Stevens’ indictment echoed across Capitol Hill on Tuesday. “The timing on this couldn’t be worse.”
One year ago today, Stevens pleaded with his Republican colleagues to “stay with me” as he rode out a Justice Department investigation and an FBI raid on his Alaska home.
Now, there’s an arrest warrant out for the 84-year-old senator. He’s been stripped of his top committee rankings. His iconic career is crumbling. His hopes for reelection are in serious doubt.
And Senate Republicans have no idea what to do about it.
GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was a congressional intern in 1964, when Stevens was planning his first run for the Senate. McConnell can’t and won’t ask a legend to resign, at least at this point.
The Senate ethics committee says it won’t do anything until the criminal case runs it course.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has left the ball in McConnell’s court, saying it’s “all up to [Republicans]” to decide how to handle Stevens.
Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, the House Republican Conference chairman who had hoped to spend Tuesday blaming Barack Obama for Democratic inaction on energy, instead was left to argue that the indictment of the Senate’s most senior Republican was somehow “bad for both parties.”
The conservative National Review called for Stevens’ resignation. Democrats across the country called on their Republican opponents to return Stevens’ campaign contributions. Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican, used Stevens’ indictment to demand passage of legislation that would deny congressional pensions to members convicted of felonies.
Stevens proclaimed his innocence Tuesday, saying he “never knowingly submitted a false disclosure form required by law as a U.S. senator.” But the details laid out by the Department of Justice are blistering, suggesting a seven-year pattern of failing to disclose the “gifts” provided to the senator by the Alaska oil field services company VECO.
The indictment charges Stevens with failing to report on his financial disclosure forms $250,000 in “things of value” including remodeling work on his home, a Viking grill and a sweetheart deal on a Land Rover.
The indictment further alleges that “during the same time he was concealing his continued receipt of these things of value from VECO and [VECO executive Bill J.] Allen,” that Stevens “received solicitations for official actions from Allen and other VECO employees, and that Sen. Stevens used his position and office on behalf of VECO during that same time period.”
In exchange, according to the indictment, the oil services company asked Stevens for help with company projects in Pakistan and Russia, as well as a National Science Foundation grant to a VECO subsidiary.
Matthew Friedrich, the acting assistant attorney general, said that prosecutors have not been able to establish the quid pro quo necessary for bribery charges. However, he said that the investigation is ongoing.
Stevens has a reputation as a fighter, so he may very well launch a counterattack on the Justice case against him. His campaign has said it’s “full steam ahead” for the fall election, adding that Stevens’ office has been “flooded” with calls and e-mailsfrom supporters urging him to press on.
“The message from them is clear: Alaska needs Ted Stevens in the U.S. Senate.”
Stevens is a former Senate Appropriations Committee chairman who has funneled billions of dollars in earmarks and federal funds back to his home state, but he become the butt of jokes over the so-called “bridge to nowhere” earmark that became a symbol of Washington excess.
While he’s known in Washington for his explosive temper, Stevens is beloved in Alaska, where Republican Gov. Sarah Palin said Tuesday that news of the senator’s indictment had “rock[ed] the foundation of our state.”
“A lot of people here see him like he’s our uncle,” said McHugh Pierre, a spokesman for the Alaska Republican Party. “A lot of people want to help him” in his time of need, he added.
Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), a longtime Stevens friend, said he wasn’t surprised by the news because Stevens has been under investigation for so long. He said, however, that he believes Stevens is innocent.
Other senators responded with caution. “I need to learn more of the facts before I comment,” said Sen. John Warner (R-Va.). “I have the highest personal regard for him,” Warner added. “He is a strong man. He fought hard for his state, which he loved. All of us have unexpected moments in our career. All of us have to do our best to work through them. I wish him the best.”
Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, emerging from the Democrats’ weekly policy lunch, said there had been a “somber” reaction to word of Stevens’ indictment. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said he was saddened by the news.
Appearing on MSNBC on Tuesday afternoon, Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan said that the indictment involves “a serious allegation” but insisted that it wouldn’t be a distraction from John McCain’s presidential campaign. “This presidential campaign will not be about the senior senator from Alaska,” Duncan said. “It’s going to be about big issues, about energy, about tax policy; it’s going to be about the future of America. This is a blip along the way.”
McCain, who has clashed repeatedly with Stevens in the past, issued no statement on the indictment.
Late Tuesday, an Appropriations Committee aide said that Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) will replace Stevens as ranking member on the Appropriation Committee’s Defense subcommittee “through the end of this Congress or until such time as Sen. Stevens is able to resume his duties as ranking member.”
Patrick O’Connor and Daniel W. Reilly contributed to this story.