WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Larry Craig's hold on his job grew increasingly tenuous Wednesday as he lost the confidence of fellow Republicans, from President Bush to his colleagues in the Senate.
The three-term Idaho senator saw his clout and political support diminish by the hour Wednesday, as some colleagues called on him to step down and Senate leaders stripped him of his senior role on several key committees.
The growing controversy weakens his influence as a senator and calls into question how long he can fend off the growing clamor to resign.
Two of Craig's Senate colleagues, John McCain of Arizona and Norm Coleman of Minnesota, called on Craig to resign, saying their fellow Republican's guilty plea to charge that he solicited sex from an undercover police officer makes him unfit to serve as a U.S. senator.
"I think he should resign . . . my opinion is that when you plead guilty to a crime then you shouldn't serve," McCain told CNN. "And that is not a moral stand. That is not a holier-than-thou. It is just a factual situation." Coleman echoed that, calling Craig's arrest and guilty plea "conduct unbecoming a senator."
And in the most stinging rebuke of Craig's actions since news broke Monday about his conviction for lewd behavior in an airport bathroom in Minneapolis, a Bush administration spokesman said the White House was "disappointed" in the senator's behavior.
"It's been referred to the Senate Ethics Committee, so they will have to address it," said White House spokesman Alex Conant. "We hope that it will be resolved quickly because that will be in the best interest of the Senate and the people of Idaho."
Republicans increasingly have distanced themselves from the Idaho senator since a Capitol Hill newspaper reported Monday that Craig had pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct charges in connection with the undercover investigation into lewd conduct at the bathroom. McCain is running for president, Coleman faces a tough reelection challenge and Republicans nationwide are worried about how voters will react to yet another GOP-connected scandal.
Many said they're bothered by how Craig kept the matter secret for so long, without telling friends, family or Senate leaders. Craig handled his plea negotiations over the phone or by mail, and never appeared in person in court on the misdemeanor charge.
Republicans began to turn on Craig as early as Monday, when Mitt Romney dropped him as the Senate co-chair of his presidential campaign. Romney, a Massachusetts Republican, said Craig "disappointed the American people."
Matters got worse on Tuesday, when Senate leaders called for an ethics investigation into Craig's actions just as he was about to begin a news conference in Idaho. The news undermined Craig's claims during his press conference that he hadn't done anything inappropriate in the airport restroom, and that he was the subject of a newspaper "witch hunt" investigating his sexual orientation.
By late Wednesday, Craig had been asked to give up his leadership spots on Senate committees. McCain, Coleman and U.S. Rep. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich, called on him to give up his Senate post, as did the leaders of conservative political movements both inside and outside Idaho.
Craig's scandal adds him to a growing roster of ethical and corruption problems facing Republicans, beginning last summer with revelations about former Florida Rep. Mark Foley's inappropriate contact with House pages, and continuing to the FBI raid this summer on the Alaska home of Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.
GOP leaders worry that while the problems might be isolated to three or four individuals, the perception taints the entire party.
"There's the potential for a cumulative effect, and that's going back to last fall to the previous scandals," said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council,
Perkins said he feared that many voters would turn from Republicans, instead picking Democratic candidates with squeaky-clean images and reputations.
"There's an expectation that leaders, especially those that espouse family values, will live by those," he said. "Voters don't expect perfection, but they want integrity."
Craig's spokesman, Dan Whiting, said the senator had no comment Wednesday. Craig has spoken several times with Senate Republican leaders, including on Wednesday when they told him he would have to give up his committee leadership posts. Craig's performance Tuesday at a press conference in Idaho, where he blamed his guilty plea on a newspaper "witch hunt", only angered Republicans more.
His press conference Tuesday in Boise was "absurd," Patrick Sammon, the president of the Log Cabin Republicans, the nation's largest gay and lesbian GOP group. Sammon called on Craig to step down, saying that he, too, feared voters "perceive that these ethical problems are problems for the Republicans."
"This shows such an utter and complete lack of judgment," Sammon said. "I'm not sure that the people of Idaho want someone in Washington with judgment that's this bad." It's up to Idaho voters to decide whether Craig should stay in office _ if he chooses to run for re-election, said Hoekstra, the third lawmaker to call for Craig's resignation and the first member of the House of Representatives.
"However, he also represents the Republican Party," Hoekstra said. "This is unacceptable for a leader in the U.S. Congress and the Republican Party to engage in this type of activity."
McClatchy Washington bureau reporters Lisa Zagaroli, Margaret Talev and Lesley Clark contributed to this report.