“As I continued to work for Idaho over the past three weeks here in the Senate, I have seen that it is possible for me to work here effectively,” Craig said in a statement.
His decision to stay in office — and retire at the end of his term in January 2009 — came less than three hours after Judge Charles Porter rejected Craig’s argument entirely, saying the senator was well aware of the consequences of his guilty plea in August on disorderly conduct charges. Craig had previously said he would step down last Sunday.
“I am extremely disappointed with the ruling issued today,” Craig said. “I am innocent of the charges against me. I continue to work with my legal team to explore my additional legal options.”
Craig’s reversal, while not completely unexpected on Capitol Hill, was met with a mix of anger and acceptance from his colleagues.
Senate Republican leaders have made clear to Craig that they want him to resign, successfully pushing him to give up his committee leadership positions. But beyond that, GOP aides say, their options are limited, allowing Craig to continue working as a senator.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who sought Craig’s resignation in late August when the arrest and guilty plea became known, holds much of the power in deciding whether to make life difficult for Craig in Washington.
Yet on Thursday, McConnell ducked the controversy, canceling an afternoon press conference on an unrelated topic and ignoring reporters’ questions as he walked through the Senate hallways.
“The matter is before the ethics committee so it will be dealt with by Sen. Craig and the ethics committee,” McConnell said.
Others were not as charitable.
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who has the task of defending almost two dozen GOP Senate seats next year as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, stood outside the Senate chamber and eviscerated Craig verbally.
“He had his day in court,” Ensign said. “The judge ruled against him. I think he should do the right thing and honor his decision [to leave]. I believe the best thing for him to do is to keep his word. I could not feel more strongly about it.”
An ethics committee investigation “is going to be embarrassing for the Senate and embarrassing for his family,” Ensign said.
Several Republican senators feared that Craig will become a distraction for the Senate and the party at an already difficult time for the GOP.
“I hoped he would have done what he said he would,” said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who faces a tough reelection next year.
One Senate GOP strategist said there’s been a significant amount of fatigue within the Republican conference about Craig, and Thursday’s decision makes it much harder for the party to move on.
“There has been a sense around the Senate that he was going to stay,” the strategist said. “He's like George Costanza on the "Seinfeld" episode who quit his job and then came back to work the next day and pretended that nothing happened.”
In rejecting Craig’s plea, the judge noted that the senator had a two-month period to consider his decision, received his Miranda warning and had been advised by the prosecutor to seek an attorney.
“The defendant, a career politician with a college education, is of, at least, above-average intelligence,” the judge wrote. “He knew what he was saying, reading and signing.”
In his statement, Craig said he had several reasons to stay. He realized he could still do his job. He holds key committee assignments on appropriations, energy and veterans affairs.
“A replacment would be highly unlikely to obtain these posts,” Craig said.
And he said wants to clear his name in the ethics committee — “something that is not possible if I am not serving in the Senate.”
But, he added, “when my term has expired, I will retire and not seek reelection. I hope this provides the certainty Idaho needs and deserves.”
After the judge’s ruling but before Craig’s statement was issued, a spokesman for Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter told reporters that he had selected a replacement for Craig.
“He is ready to act should we receive a letter of resignation,” said Jon Hanian, Otter's spokesman in Boise, told The Associated Press, in what seemed like a calculated signal that home-state Republicans want Craig to surrender the seat he has held for 17 years.
Craig was not at the Capitol Thursday afternoon. He skipped a vote, and the Senate recessed shortly afterward for a week-long break.
That left other Republican senators to speak for him. But there seemed to be only two defending Craig's decision to stay on.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), said, “He’s entitled to make that decision and I respect that.” And Craig’s home-state friend, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), offered spirited, if not lonely, support.
“I support him in making his decision to continue to pursue his legal rights,” Crapo said. “I look forward to serving with him to serve the interests of Idaho. … People are entitled to change their mind. … It’s perfectly acceptable to change his decision.”
Daniel W. Reilly contributed to this story.