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In the GOP, Prayers for the Sinner -- but Mostly Silence

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, June 18, 2009

As newly confessed adulterer John Ensign went to ground in Las Vegas yesterday, his Senate Republican colleagues here in Washington reprised a familiar ritual: averting their gaze.

"It would be intellectually dishonest for me to comment on it," declared Chuck Grassley of Iowa, pausing on his way to lunch with GOP colleagues.

"I'm late," announced David Vitter of Louisiana, brushing past a knot of reporters.

"I'm not going to say anything," vowed Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Senate Republican, pausing briefly beneath a portrait of John C. Calhoun. "Byyye!" he called, waving back at his questioners as he walked into lunch.

The party's 2008 presidential nominee, John McCain, pretended not even to hear the question about Ensign. "Whazzat?" he said sharply, sounding like the duck in the Aflac commercial.

"Senator --"

"Whazzat?" McCain repeated, still walking.

"Senator Ensign --"

"Whazzat?" McCain quacked for a third time before disappearing into the lunch room.

It was, as Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas artfully put it, "a no-comment day." Members of the Senate GOP caucus are becoming quite expert at the procedure, having had practice tamping down previous indiscretions by Vitter (D.C. Madam), Ted Stevens (shiatsu massage lounger) and Larry Craig (Minneapolis airport).

Ensign faces an additional hurdle: His moral politics (he led the push to drum Craig out of the chamber, calling his behavior "embarrassing for the Senate") left him open to charges of hypocrisy.

But even Democratic lawmakers, who have one of their own former members on trial across the Potomac River, charged with stashing bribe money in his freezer, know better than to call attention to the speck in their neighbor's eye. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid only offered good wishes to his fellow Nevadan in "this difficult time."

And so the senators embraced the usual solution of loving the sinner and not saying much about the sin.

"I don't know the facts surrounding John's situation," said Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, one of the few GOP senators who weren't observing no-comment day, "but Lord knows if we kicked everybody out of here who made a mistake, we'd be short-handed forever."

Lindsey Graham, the voluble South Carolinian, took that thought a step further. "I have plenty of sins, and I'm not going to tell you about them," he told reporters.

But those bursts of candor were the exception in a Senate GOP caucus that was, for the most part, determined to get to a party luncheon yesterday without discussing the affair Ensign had with his chief of staff's wife. Complicating the task was The Post's Paul Kane, who stood in the doorway between senators and their lunch.

"I'm not going to comment on that," said Jim DeMint of South Carolina, developing a sudden interest in his BlackBerry. "I just have to try to absorb it myself -- heh, heh," he added with a mirthless chuckle.

"It's a personal matter," said Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, not breaking stride. John Barrasso of Wyoming hurried past with a cellphone to his ear, waving. Mike Crapo of Idaho jiggled the keys in his pocket and announced that "I'm going to reserve comment." Susan Collins of Maine flashed an uncomfortable grin. "Um, I don't have a comment right now, thank you," she said.

Orrin Hatch of Utah tried to do the same, but Kane was ready for him. "In these instances in the past, you've talked a lot," he pointed out.

Hatch touched Kane's arm. "He's good, isn't he?" the Utah lawmaker said before pleading: "Behave yourselves now and be kind to a poor old beat-up senator." He was referring to himself, not Ensign.

Others, approached for comment, sought the help of a higher power. "I'm praying for the Ensign family," said Vitter, ignoring the other questions as he walked away.

"Thoughts and prayers are with his family," said Jeff Sessions of Alabama, doing the same.

"I haven't done anything except say a prayer for him," contributed Johnny Isakson of Georgia.

"There's a lot of praying going on," observed Roll Call reporter Jessica Brady.

"Well, there should be," Isakson shot back.

Ensign's affair dealt a double blow to Republicans: He wouldn't be around to lead the party in the annual Congressional Baseball Game, scheduled for last night, and he wouldn't be able to serve as a member of Senate GOP leadership anymore. "He's already resigned from leadership," Jim Bunning of Kentucky growled as he walked into the lunch meeting. This turned out to be a scoop: An official announcement followed a few minutes later.

But the resignation did not stop the no-comment parade. One by one they brushed by, ignoring questions: Kit Bond of Missouri, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. "Why is this different from Larry Craig?" somebody asked John Cornyn of Texas. Cornyn responded by turning his back and walking away.

Reporters mobbed Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who shares an apartment with Ensign on Capitol Hill. "I'm not answering any Ensign questions," he announced. "You can ask all you want."

"You don't have any thoughts?"

"I don't have any thoughts."

"Have you had a chance to talk about it?"

"I'm just not going to comment."

Finally, Coburn was badgered into making a defense. "He is a bright young man," the senator said of his 51-year-old colleague. "Lots of people make mistakes."

True, though it sometimes seems a disproportionate number of them are in Congress.

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