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McConnell Can't Avoid Craig Queries

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sounded like a wishful thinker, at least in that moment Tuesday, standing before dozens of media who wouldn’t stop asking about disgraced Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho).

“I think the episode is over,” McConnell said about 20 minutes into a press conference dominated by all things Craig, rather than by Iraq and appropriations, as Republicans had hoped. “We will have a new senator from Idaho at some point in the next month or so, and we are going to move on.”

But if the recent scandals plaguing Congress are any guide, interest in Washington will likely abate only after Craig himself returns to the Capitol to face his colleagues.

And on Tuesday, the first day following a monthlong recess, Craig remained in Idaho, leaving other senators to deal with the questions about his guilty plea on disorderly conduct charges in a sex sting operation, his plans to resign Sept. 30 and the impact of it all on Congress and the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, a team of lawyers and crisis experts assembled by Craig pushed ahead with a strategy aimed at repairing the three-term senator’s reputation.

Washington attorney Stanley Brand said Tuesday that the Senate Ethics Committee would receive a letter arguing that it should drop any plans to pursue an investigation into Craig’s arrest in a men’s room at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

“I don’t think the Senate ought to be policing misdemeanor offenses that don’t have anything to do with their office,” Brand said. “They would be very busy.”

Senate Republican leaders called for an ethics investigation last Tuesday into Craig’s June 11 arrest and Aug. 8 guilty plea.

But Craig has since announced his resignation, making a probe moot, Brand said.

“I am taking it as part of the good-faith exchange of his having resigned and sparing everybody the difficult questions I am raising,” Brand said. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the ranking Republican on the Ethics Committee, declined to comment Tuesday on Craig, citing the usual protocol of not discussing a potential investigation.

During the Senate’s morning session, members lamented the loss of one senator — John Warner (R-Va.), who announced last week that he would be retiring in 2009 — and avoided any mention of another, Craig, who would no longer be around in a month.

McConnell did not have the luxury of avoidance at his press conference.

Why, he was asked, did the GOP leadership seek an ethics investigation of Craig while giving a pass to Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) after he acknowledged in July that his phone number was among those on the client list of an alleged prostitution ring?

“No charges have been made,” McConnell said of Vitter. “And it appears whatever might have occurred, occurred before this individual came to the Senate, therefore raising serious questions as to whether the Senate has jurisdiction over it.

“The situation last week was there was something admitted to; the legal case was, in effect, over,” McConnell continued. “The only question was what the attitude was going to be in the Senate regarding the admission that was made. It is clearly distinguishable.”

McConnell was pressed again: Were the responses different because the Craig incident involved alleged homosexual activity?

“This had to do with the admission of responsibility as opposed to charges or suggestions,” McConnell said.

He rejected suggestions that the Craig and Vitter incidents, coupled with the FBI raid of the home of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) in late July as part of a federal corruption probe, have contributed to Congress’ sub-basement approval ratings or soiled the Republican Party brand.

“The overwhelming majority of members of Congress, both Republican and Deocrat, are honorable people,” McConnell said.

“Once in a while, there are examples to the contrary.”

Finally, when asked whether he believed Craig’s assertion that the incident was a misunderstanding, McConnell didn’t answer. That’s when he said it was time to move on.

The day took on an otherwise familiar rhythm for a body that seems to find itself enmeshed in a new scandal every few weeks.

TV network news crews assembled at dawn outside Craig’s office on the 5th floor of the Hart Senate Office Building, in the same corridor occupied by Vitter and Stevens, where similar stakeouts occurred following their PR pitfalls in July.

A CBS News cameraman said a congressional staffer had joked that the floor was cursed.
Eventually, a guessing game ensued: Would Craig show up?

His staff made it clear by the late morning that he wasn’t in Washington and could stay away for the rest of the week.

A Q & A on Craig’s Senate website suggested it might be longer.

His office will spend the next month resolving constituent issues, such as Social Security, passport and pension problems. Staffers have begun writing background papers for Craig’s successor, said spokesman Dan Whiting, and Craig will attempt to find another Republican to take up one of his recent pet causes: expanding immigration visas for agricultural workers.

“Despite the void of support last week, ... I think you will start seeing people come out of the woodwork and start helping Larry,” Whiting said.

But Craig himself has not determined when, or even whether, he will return to Washington for votes and committee hearings, the website stated.

“He will definitely be back at some point, at the minimum just to say goodbye to folks and deliver a speech on the floor,” Whiting said.

A few lines down on the website was a phone number for Judy Smith, a crisis management expert who represents Craig.

Her number is two digits off from one belonging to the U.S. Treasury Department, where the phone has been ringing off the hook with media calls.

“They wanted me on the ‘Today’ show,” said a man who answered the Treasury number. “I told them I really have too many other commitments.”

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