By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
When Larry Craig (R-Lindbergh Terminal) dropped in unexpectedly for lunch with his Senate Republican colleagues yesterday, the caucus developed a serious case of acid reflux.
"I never talk about these things," a sour Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) told reporters as he left the room.
"You'll have to ask somebody else about that," said a dyspeptic Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.) paused and smiled. "Uh, I think the ethics committee is going to review the matter. See y'all." With that, the Senate's No. 2 Republican fled into the chamber.
Even Craig's few defenders were having trouble finding words. "You don't toss off, er, over, a friend of that duration," reasoned Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who suggested that others feel the same way in private. "There's been a lot of favorable talk about Larry in the cloakroom," Specter said.
References to cloakroom goings-on might not be exactly what Craig needs right now. But in fairness to Specter, he didn't have much time to order his thoughts. Craig gave the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, just an hour's notice before returning to the Capitol for the first time since he offered -- then reconsidered -- his resignation after pleading guilty last month to toe-tapping and wide-standing in an airport men's room.
McConnell was not pleased to get the call. When Craig arrived for a vote on the Senate floor just after noon, he sidled up to a threesome of Republican senators: Jim Bunning (Ky.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and McConnell. Bunning patted Craig on the back. Murkowski gave him a hug. McConnell stood still as a statue. The awkward quartet remained in place for a full minute until Craig retreated to a safer spot from which to cast a wary eye at the suddenly crowded press gallery.
The indignities began immediately for Craig, when one member of the Capitol Police did not recognize him when he walked around a metal detector on the first floor. "Larry Craig," the senator found it necessary to tell the cop.
Clearing security, Craig bumped into CNN's Ted Barrett, who by serendipity was waiting for an elevator. "What brings you back to the Capitol today?" Barrett asked.
"Go to work," Craig answered.
When Barrett pushed for a more detailed explanation, Craig retorted: "Because I'm a serving United States senator from Idaho."
That's true, if barely. Craig has said he'll step down at the end of the month if he can't get his guilty plea overturned.
Craig fled into the privacy of the senators' dining room, then to his first-floor "hideaway" for more privacy. But outside his hideaway, the senator seemed startled to discover camera crews from NBC and CBS -- waiting, by happenstance, for a meeting next door between Specter and Michael Mukasey, the attorney general nominee.
Craig was learning quickly that the Capitol is the wrong place to be for a man trying to minimize contact with the media. When word spread that Craig was in the building, reporters and photographers mustered outside the Senate chamber, where they found not Craig but former senator Gary Hart -- the victim of a sex scandal himself a generation ago.
As Craig walked toward the chamber for a vote, Carrie Budoff of the Politico ambushed him. "Doing well, doing well," was all he would divulge. As Craig left the chamber for lunch, Carl Hulse of the New York Times sounded the alarm. "Senator Craig," he called loudly, causing a pack to form around the man from Idaho.
Is he rescinding his resignation? "Not at all. I'm here to work with my staff and my office, and to work with my legal team."
Is he confident about his case? "I have no opinion on it. I'd like to be."
Inside the lunch meeting, attended by Vice President Cheney, Craig addressed his colleagues for about a minute, apologizing for the embarrassment and reminding them that his lawyers are hard at work on the case. When he finished, there was silence, followed by a smattering of applause.
Evidently, the pre-lunch kerfuffle with the media was sufficiently distressing to Craig that, to avoid the 100 reporters who had amassed during the lunch, he left by the back door.
When reporters finally cornered him before another vote in the afternoon, Craig was still vague about his plans. Is he resigning? "I said I intend to by the 30th," he said, but added: "That's what we're working on." Craig left the reporters at the chamber door and walked onto the floor -- where McConnell managed to avoid eye contact and McCain took a detour to avoid a meeting.
Outside the chamber, meanwhile, Specter pursued his fruitless struggle for the right words. He likened his colleague's guilty plea to receiving a parking ticket, even though the meter was broken. "You fill out this form -- guilty -- and pay 10 bucks because you're not going to spend a day sitting around a courtroom," he reasoned.
Still, Specter admitted some holes in Craig's broken-meter defense. "I think there's no doubt that what he did was not intelligent."