The news certainly damages any hope Ensign has of running for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012 – he had fueled speculation about a presidential run with a recent visit to Iowa — and it may also hinder what has been a steady rise in Senate GOP leadership.
Political insiders in the Senate and in Nevada told POLITICO that Ensign began an affair with a staffer several months after he separated from his wife. When Ensign reconciled with his wife, the sources said, he gave the aide a severance package and parted ways.
Sometime later, a Nevada source said, Ensign met with the husband of the woman involved and had what this source described as a positive encounter. Sources said that the man subsequently asked Ensign for a substantial sum of money – at which point Ensign decided to make the affair public. In his Las Vegas press conference, Ensign declined to give specifics about the woman involved but did say she and “her husband were close friends and both of them worked for me.”
At a Las Vegas press conference, Ensign admitted his affair, said his wife sought counseling after the episode, but added that he and his wife have reconciled, according to a Twitter feed of the press conference from LasVegasNow. The press conference was not carried on national cable TV networks. Ensign took no questions.
Ensign’s office did not return calls for comment, but the senator released a statement saying "I deeply regret and am very sorry for my actions."
“Last year I had an affair. I violated the vows of my marriage. It is the worst thing I have ever done in my life,” Ensign said. “If there was ever anything in my life that I could take back, this would be it. I take full responsibility for my actions.”
The Politico 44 Story Widget Requires Adobe Flash Player.
Ensign informed fellow Nevadan Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, about his situation earlier today.
"I don't know the details. I talked with him today,” Reid told POLITICO. “Of course, he's my friend. This is a private, family matter. I just hope that Darlene and he work things out."
Reid said he didn’t offer any advice on how to handle the situation. "I didn't give him any advice. I just told him he's my friend. I'm pulling for him. Anything I can do to help, let me know.”
Ensign, a born again Christian, is chairman of the GOP Policy Committee, making him the highest ranking Republican Senator in Nevada’s history. He has three children. Ensign’s wife Darlene, in a statement to the Las Vegas Sun, said: "Since we found out last year we have worked through the situation and we have come to a reconciliation. This has been difficult on both families. With the help of our family and close friends our marriage has become stronger," Mrs. Ensign said.
Ensign was absent on Capitol Hill Tuesday, skipping the weekly lunch that his committee hosts for GOP senators and its ensuing press conference where party leaders espouse their weekly message.
Word of his expected announcement stunned colleagues, who were preparing for this summer’s big battles over the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor and a health care fight but now have to contend with a drama hovering over one of their leaders.
Elected in 2000, the 51-year-old Ensign has moved up the leadership chain in the Senate. As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2008, Ensign oversaw the devastating losses to GOP candidates. But his party largely spared him of blame, casting it instead on an unpopular president who dragged down the party’s brand. Since then, Ensign has sought to articulate conservative pinciples and is a mainstay at GOP press conferences deriding Democrats’ domestic policies.
Ensign ran for the Senate in 1998 against Sen. Harry Reid in a nasty, cliffhanger race that Reid – now the Senate majority leader – won by a razor-thin 428 votes. Reid and Ensign have since reached a détente; neither man criticizes the other back home by name.
A staunch fiscal and social conservative, Ensign has been considered a rising star in his party, recently making headlines by speaking at events in Iowa, raising speculation about his interest in a run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012.
It’s not clear exactly how this affair will affect Ensign’s future in the Senate. When former Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) was arrested for soliciting sex in an airport men’s room in the summer of 2007, Ensign was among Craig’s toughest critics, saying he should step down since he had been charged with a crime. And during the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton, Ensign, then a Senate candidate, called on Clinton to resign.