A Nevada political insider 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 source said, he gave the aide a severance package and parted ways.
Sometime later, the source said, Ensign met with the husband of the woman involved and had what this source described as a positive encounter. But the source said that the man subsequently asked Ensign for a substantial sum of money – at which point Ensign decided to make the affair public.
Ensign’s office did not return calls for comment, but the senator told the Associated Press Tuesday: "I deeply regret and am very sorry for my actions."
Ensign’s staff said he would be making a statement about a “personal matter” at 3:30 p.m. local time in Las Vegas.
Ensign is chairman of the GOP Policy Committee, making him the highest ranking Republican Senator in Nevada’s history. He has three children.
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.
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Word of his expected announcement stunned colleagues, 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 principles 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.