Problems Bigger Than Bridges and Tubes

Sen. Ted Stevens, the distinguished gentleman from the Last Frontier.
Sen. Ted Stevens, the distinguished gentleman from the Last Frontier. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, July 31, 2008

It was a tender moment between the Senate's two oldest members: one infirm, the other indicted.

Eighty-four-year-old Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska, newly charged by the feds with corruption-related offenses, walked over to the desk of 90-year-old Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia yesterday morning. Byrd, in a wheelchair, clasped his friend's hands, then squinted up at him and shouted, "Say it ain't so!"

Stevens says it ain't so. But prosecutors say it is.

They say he received gifts worth more than $250,000 from an oil and gas company whose business interests he promoted: a renovation of his home, a Viking gas grill, a Land Rover and a cabinet full of tools. The senator, expected to turn himself in at the federal courthouse in Washington today, vows to continue his reelection campaign as he fights the charges.

Exactly how he plans to do this, however, remains something of a mystery. A reporter from Fox News asked Stevens about his plans yesterday morning as he walked to the Senate chamber for a vote. The senator ignored her queries, then put his arm around her shoulder. "Someone told me the thing to do is I ought to be surrounded by beautiful women," he said -- as the Fox News camera recorded the moment for posterity.

Good advice, no doubt -- but of limited use in getting Stevens out of his legal and political fix.

The irascible former Senate president pro tempore (he has cheerfully called himself a "mean, miserable SOB") has made news in various unhelpful ways in recent years, pushing for money for a "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska and memorably dubbing the Internet "a series of tubes." But now a sprawling bribery scandal could cause him to lose his seat; he has already had to give up his committee leadership posts.

With Stevens's troubles coming after the sex scandals involving Larry Craig of Idaho and David Vitter of Louisiana, Republicans are in increasing danger of losing enough Senate seats in the November elections to give Democrats a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority. That could explain the skittishness of Republican lawmakers yesterday as reporters buttonholed them off the Senate floor.

"I think this is about Alaska," postulated Norm Coleman (Minn.), an embattled Republican.

"I'm not going to talk about Senator Stevens," announced Mel Martinez (Fla.), a former party chairman.

"Innocent until proven guilty," offered Sam Brownback (Kan.).

As the Senate clerk called Stevens's name for a roll-call vote yesterday, the scene on the floor was one of walking wounded. In the well stood Craig, who had pleaded guilty to bad men's-room behavior. He was chatting with Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), tarnished by the favorable mortgage he got from Countrywide Financial. Standing on the other side of Craig was Vitter, whose phone number was on the late D.C. Madam's list. A few steps away was Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), another Countrywide victim. A few paces in the other direction was Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), caught up in the flap over the firing of U.S. attorneys.

When "Uncle Ted" ambled in wearing his orthopedic sneakers, his colleagues surrounded him with love -- a far different reception from the shunning they showed Vitter and Craig. He got a playful pat and an elbow bump from Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a hug from behind from Domenici, a shared chuckle with John Thune (S.D.) and a thumbs-up from Jon Kyl (Ariz.). A dozen more Republican colleagues greeted him with warm handshakes, as did at least a couple of Democrats, including Daniel Inouye (Hawaii) and Mark Pryor (Ark.). Among the most enthusiastic was Craig, who, for once, was not the central scandal figure on the floor. Craig gave his embattled senior colleague a comforting pat on the arm, then shared a private joke. When Stevens emerged from the cloakroom for a second vote, Craig again put his arm around him.

The unexpected timing of Stevens's indictment had the effect of shutting down the week's other scandal story: a report by the Justice Department's inspector general showing rampant politicization of the hiring of civil servants in the department. Among the juicier nuggets the inspector had uncovered was a collection of Lexis-Nexis search terms used to screen job applicants. The search string included: "iran contra or clinton or spotted owl or florida recount or sex! . . . or indict! or enron or kerry or iraq or wmd!. . . . or gay! or homosexual! or gun!"

But the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on that topic yesterday morning was lightly attended. Scandal attention had shifted elsewhere. And the Justice Department had a new rebuttal to anybody who raised the allegation of politicization: Ted Stevens.

Now some new search terms may be in order, such as "Viking gas grill" and "Land Rover." In the end, the government says, Veco gave Stevens a new first floor, a wraparound deck, new plumbing and wiring, the grill, the tools, and a new Land Rover in exchange for his 1964 Mustang. Now Veco may give him a couple of other gifts: a ticket home from Washington, and admission to a federal prison.

Stevens, however, has no plan to accept those gifts. Reporters and photographers came at him from every angle yesterday: staking out his office and his committee room, the Senate subway and his "hideaway" office in the Capitol. The questions flew at him whenever he approached or exited the Senate chamber: Are you going to resign? Will you be able to weather this?

Uncle Ted merely smiled. "It's one of those things," he said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company