WASHINGTON — Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens returned to the Senate a convicted felon on Tuesday but escaped at least one verdict: exile by his fellow Republicans.
His Republican Senate colleagues decided to postpone a vote on whether to keep Stevens in their conference, saying that they'll wait until after his Senate race is resolved.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who'd pressed for Stevens' ouster from the conference, said he wouldn't ask fellow Republicans to vote on his motion until election officials finished counting ballots in Alaska. Stevens trailed Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich by 2,374 votes Tuesday as the Alaska Division of Elections finished its tally.
Few Republican senators seemed willing to act Tuesday, when the decision was just hours away from being made by Alaska voters.
"What we decided is there's nothing for us to decide until we know if he's elected or not," said the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
DeMint's motion would have stripped Stevens, a 40-year Senate veteran, of his committee assignments and would keep him from voting on internal Republican matters. However, Stevens would have remained a member of the Senate and retained his ability to vote on legislation. The proposal is different from expulsion, which would require a two-thirds vote of the entire Senate.
Stevens said after the Senate Republican conference met that he was prepared to make a case for remaining in the conference and he "still has faith I'm going to win the election."
He also said that the past several months — beginning with his indictment in June, then his trial and his re-election campaign — had been hard on him.
"I haven't had a night's sleep for almost four months," he said as he walked to and from his office and the Republican meeting.
"I've been living about three different lives and it's hard to even answer your questions properly," he said, adding, "I wouldn't wish what I've been through on anyone, (even) my worst enemy."
Stevens was found guilty Oct. 27 in federal court on seven counts of failing to report more than $250,000 in gifts, including renovations that double his home in size, on his Senate financial-disclosure forms.
Many senators have expressed reservations about Stevens' continued presence in the Senate. A number of Republicans and Democrats, including Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, have asked Stevens to step down.
DeMint said he'd called for Stevens' ouster from the conference as a sign that Republicans took their losses in recent elections seriously and wanted to start the next session of Congress in January with a clean slate, free of the taint of corruption.
However, other senators said that they'd rather that the voters of Alaska spoke first. They included some of Stevens' oldest Senate colleagues: Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
"I don't think the matter's right. We'll see what happens in the election," Specter said, adding that DeMint's proposal "would be a good vote to delay permanently."
Stevens also had the support of his fellow Alaska Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was prepared Tuesday to speak on his behalf in front of her colleagues.
Murkowski said that she'd called DeMint on Monday and told him that she thought it was inappropriate to act before the vote was final.
DeMint told her it was a "message he thought was important to be sent." However, she said that she told DeMint that if the outcome of the election were in Stevens' favor and his fellow Republicans stripped him of his committee assignments, it would be a disservice to the people of Alaska.
"That to me did not seem reasonable," Murkowski said. "It was not an approach I supported in any way . . . and I said it was premature, it's unnecessary and just shouldn't be done."
DeMint said Tuesday that it was "clear there are sufficient votes to pass the resolution regarding Senator Stevens" but that the timing was in question.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY