By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 2, 2007
Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) yesterday announced he will resign at the end of the month, concluding with "sadness and deep regret" that his arrest in a men's room sex sting has made it impossible for him to remain in office.
"I apologize for what I have caused. I am deeply sorry," Craig, 62, told a gathering of about 300 people in Boise that included his wife, Suzanne, two of his three children, Republican supporters and a few hecklers. "These are serious times of war and of conflict," Craig said, "times that deserve the Senate's and the full nation's attention."
The Republican establishment concluded days ago that Craig must go, and GOP leaders pushed him to resign behind the scenes and through increasingly aggressive public statements. Their tone softened yesterday when Craig complied.
"Senator Larry Craig made a difficult decision but the right one," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement. "It is my hope he will be remembered not for this but for his three decades of dedicated public service."
President Bush called Craig after his address. "He told him he knew it was a difficult decision and wished him well," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said. But Craig "made the right decision for himself, his family, his constituents and the U.S. Senate," Stanzel added.
Craig said he will wait until Sept. 30 to leave, to provide "as smooth a transition as possible for Idaho." Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter (R) said he has not chosen a replacement to serve out the 16 months remaining in Craig's term. Top candidates include Republican Lt. Gov. Jim Risch and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho).
Craig's 28-year career in Congress started to collapse Monday afternoon, when the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call revealed that he had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge as part of an investigation by Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport police into lewd behavior in a men's restroom.
According to the police report, at about noon on June 11, Craig tried to solicit an undercover officer in an adjoining stall, using signals "used by persons wishing to engage in lewd contact," including tapping his toes, moving his foot over to touch the officer's foot and swiping his left hand under the stall divider.
Eventually, the officer flashed his police identification and escorted Craig away. Later, in the interview room, Craig pulled out a business card that identified him as a U.S. senator, and said, "What do you think about that?"
Craig called a news conference in Boise on Tuesday and said he had pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct "in the hope of making it go away." He said he had tried to resolve the case quietly because his hometown newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, had been investigating the senator's sexual orientation -- a "witch hunt," as Craig described it.
"Let me be clear: I am not gay. I never have been gay," Craig said Tuesday.
Some Democrats and gay Republicans speculated quietly that the scandal's homosexual dimension was fueling the unusually harsh Republican response, which started Tuesday when GOP leaders called for an ethics investigation. When Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) was implicated recently in the D.C. Madam prostitution case, critics noted, GOP leaders more or less kept quiet.
"There seems to be a double standard that reflects the GOP's fear and discomfort with all things gay," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist and veteran political strategist, who is openly gay.
Mike Rogers, a gay activist and blogger who tried to out Craig last year, attributed the contrasting treatment of Craig and Vitter to "homophobia, pure and simple."
Furious about Craig's opposition in Congress to gay rights, including his support for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, Rogers disclosed in October that he had spoken with men who said they had had sexual encounters with Craig, including in the restrooms at Union Station. Craig's office dismissed the allegations as "completely ridiculous." However, the disclosure did prompt the Idaho Statesman investigation. The newspaper printed a report Tuesday tracing rumors about Craig's sexual orientation to the mid-1960s, when he was a student at the University of Idaho.
Republicans countered that Craig's case was unusual because it had been adjudicated by a court of law, with Craig admitting his actions, paying a fine and accepting one year of unsupervised probation. A senior Republican Senate aide said no ethics charges had been fueled in Vitter's case because his actions took place while he was serving in the House.
"This wasn't like he's been charged with something, but yet he denied it," Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) told a Reno reporter.
Craig grew up on a Midvale, Idaho, ranch and lived there after college and graduate school, until his election to the Idaho Senate in 1974. He was elected to the U.S. House in 1980 and won an open Senate seat in 1990 after Sen. James McClure (R-Idaho) retired.
Craig, a National Rifle Association board member, played a key role in gun debates. He helped pass legislation to protect firearms manufacturers from lawsuits. He also worked to improve background checks.
But his tenure and record amounted to little this week. Craig's Republican colleagues found out about his guilty plea when Roll Call posted its report on the Web Monday afternoon, and they began distancing themselves.
On Tuesday, McConnell and other Senate GOP leaders decided by conference call to file an ethics complaint, and McConnell later called Craig to inform him.
During a second conference call Wednesday, the GOP leadership decided to seek Craig's removal as ranking Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee and subcommittees of the Appropriations panel and Energy and Natural Resources panel. McConnell again called Craig, who agreed to step down until the ethics review ended.
On Thursday, however, police released a recording of Craig's post-arrest interview. Pressed by Kentucky reporters on whether Craig should resign, McConnell declined to answer, although he called Craig's conduct "unforgivable." Other Republicans, including presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney, whom Craig was supporting, also issued strong rebukes.
Yesterday in Boise, Craig acknowledged his lonely status, singling out Otter, state GOP leader Kirk Sullivan and freshman Rep. William T. Sali (R-Idaho) for attending the event. "For any public official at this moment in time to be standing with Larry Craig is in itself a humbling experience," he said.
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.