Senators Handle Stevens With Kid Gloves

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has survived World War II, a plane crash and 39 years with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). But he may not be able to get past the Justice Department.

The 83-year-old dean of Republican senators is facing what may well be the most serious challenge of his long career after the FBI and IRS raided his home in Girdwood, Alaska, on Monday as part of a wide-ranging corruption investigation.

The senator skipped a Commerce Committee hearing Tuesday and spent much of the day ducking or yelling at the press. When he was finally cornered by two reporters in a Senate stairway, the always volatile Alaskan barked that he did not have anything to say about the matter other than his statement Monday.

"I'm not going to say anything beyond that," Stevens yelled as he tried to flee up the staircase.

Stevens is a former Appropriations Committee chairman who never backs down from a fight; he continued to loudly defend the Alaska delegation's "bridge to nowhere" last year even as it became the butt of jokes. Yet he was reduced to humbly explaining himself Tuesday before his Republican colleagues in a closed-door meeting.

He proclaimed his innocence and asked his GOP brethren to stick with him, a rare move for a senator who is known for wearing an Incredible Hulk tie to intimidate political foes.

"Yes, I did," Stevens said when asked whether he discussed the case with GOP senators. "I told them to stay with me."

But even as fellow senators tiptoed around the issue, it is becoming clear that the Stevens investigation, following so quickly after the Sen. David Vitter scandal involving the "D.C. Madam," has cast a cloud over a Republican conference that has been severely tested on Iraq, immigration and scandal.

"I'd like to say or think that this too shall pass, but there seems to be a pattern developing here," said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.). "Every week, I think, 'How much worse can things get in the Senate?' We are at the bottom here, and every week it gets worse."

Stevens' calls for patience and for time to allow him to clear his name were echoed by other senators, both Democratic and Republican, and their reaction may say more about the still clubby Senate than it does about whether they believe Stevens is actually innocent.

Unlike in the House -- where lawmakers facing serious legal and criminal problems, such as Reps. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), William Jefferson (D-La.) and Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), have been forced to give up their committee assignments -- Stevens does not face that same pressure to step down from his Senate panel seats, despite calls from congressional watchdog groups to do so.

"My personal feeling is we have to be careful about punishing people during an investigation," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "Many investigations go nowhere. I don't know anything about the Stevens investigation. But I am not going to be in a position where just because someone is under investigation, I am going to punish them."

And despite the fact that the Senate was scheduled to take up a lobbying and ethics reform bill later in the week -- legislation crafted by lawmakers in response to the Jack Abramoff scandal -- Democrats were in no hurry to rush to judgment of Stevens.

"Unfortunately, there is a negative image of Congress that is reinforced even when members are investigated, whether they are guilty or not," said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). "I hope this will be an inspiration to some of the senators who are trying to block this ethics reform bill to think twice."

Durbin made his comments, however, before it was revealed that at the same closed-door Republican session on Tuesday where Stevens proclaimed his innocence, he also threatened to block the lobbying and ethics reform bill. Stevens is concerned that the new restricions on private aircraft would place too great a burden on lawmakers from Western states like Alaska, who have to cover huge areas of their state not served by commercial airlines.

The Justice Department is looking into Stevens' ties to Veco, an oil services firm, and its former CEO and founder, Bill Allen. Federal investigators are scrutinizing what role Allen and other Veco officials played in the 2000 renovation of Stevens' Girdwood home. Allen has already pleaded guilty to bribing Alaska state lawmakers and is cooperating with federal authorities.

In addition to the search of his home, several of Stevens' aides have been hauled before a federal grand jury to answer questions about the senator's personal finances and legislative activity, and the Roll Call newspaper reported on Tuesday that the FBI and Interior Department are looking into a $1.6 million earmark that Stevens pushed through for a former aide who is a business partner of his son, Ben Stevens.

Ben Stevens, an ex-state senator, has been caught up in federal corruption investigation that has decimated the Alaska Republican Party in recent months. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who has represented the state in the House since 1973, is also under federal criminal investigation.

Ted Stevens has publicly stated that he paid all the costs associated with the home remodeling project, although contractors on the renovation first sent their invoices to Allen and Veco officials.

Stevens, the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee and a senior member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, has retained a top criminal-defense attorney to represent him in the case.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), a close Stevens ally who has served with him since 1968, when Stevens was first appointed to his seat, initially declined to comment, then issued a statement.

"I strongly urge both the media and the public to withhold judgment until all of the facts come to light," Byrd said.

Even Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), a leading Senate reformer, wouldn't mention Stevens' name but said it was important for all his colleagues to support the Democrat-authored lobbying and ethics reform bill.

"Any type of inappropriate conduct by any member of Congress hurts our ability to govern this country," Feingold said, which was as far as he would go on the sensitive issue.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said that it was "premature and wrong" for the Senate to take action against Stevens, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

When asked whether Stevens should stay on the Appropriations Committee, overseeing hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending, Murkowski didn't hesitate: "Absolutely. There is an investigation, a process underway. To do anything preemptive is premature."

Republican insiders said Lott was pressured by Stevens to issue some kind of public statement in support of his veteran colleague, a move that was seen as payback for Stevens' loyalty to Lott when he faced a political firestorm over his own comments about the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

In a statement released Tuesday, Lott said Stevens "is a good man, a tireless advocate for improving the quality of life in Alaska -- a decorated veteran and a true patriot of our country."

And Lott said Stevens "has asked us to await all information during this investigation, and I will, while I'm standing by our longest-serving colleague."

Martin Kady II contributed to this report.
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