WASHINGTON — Idaho Sen. Larry Craig will walk away from his job if he's not able to overturn his guilty plea to disorderly conduct in an undercover sex sting by Sept. 30, he told the Senate's top Republican on Wednesday.
But Craig also said that if he's able to clear his name and establish that he wasn't soliciting an undercover police officer in an airport bathroom, he intends to return to the Senate and finish the 16 months remaining in his term.
"It is my intent to fight the case before the (Senate) Ethics Committee while I am a sitting senator," Craig said in a statement Wednesday. "I would prefer to have that case resolved on its merits."
The Senate's minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he spoke on Wednesday with Craig, who gave him "an update on where he is and to dispel any confusion that might exist with regard to his intention."
Craig, who announced on Saturday his intent to resign, backtracked on his resignation Tuesday night. Craig now says he'll fight to withdraw his guilty plea, and on Wednesday, his lawyers fired off a letter to the Senate Ethics Committee asking it to drop its investigation.
Craig's contradictory moves left fellow Senate Republicans sputtering Wednesday, and it was clear McConnell still considered him a senator on his way out the door.
"My view remains what I said last Saturday," McConnell said. "I thought he made the correct decision — difficult, but correct decision — to resign. That would still be my view today."
Craig, who was arrested June 8 in a Minneapolis airport bathroom on charges of soliciting sex from an undercover police officer, never consulted a lawyer, his staff or any of his Senate colleagues before he signed his guilty plea Aug. 1 and sent it to a Minnesota court. When GOP leaders learned of the arrest last week, they called for him to step down, fearful of the effect on the 2008 elections of another Republican scandal.
But even though Craig said he planned to step down, it emerged late Tuesday that the 62-year-old senator had no intention of ending his fight for his job.
In a misfired voice-mail message that was picked up by a Capitol Hill newspaper, Craig spelled out to one of his advisers how he chose his words carefully to leave open the possibility of his return.
On Wednesday, McConnell refused to say whether he offered Craig any advice or warnings during their phone call earlier in the day. McConnell said the matter was discussed during the Senate's weekly GOP policy lunch, but he wouldn't elaborate on the discussions.
McConnell also wouldn't say whether Republicans would welcome Craig back into their ranks if he were to return. Already, other Republican senators have begun jockeying for Craig's committee positions; GOP leaders last week stripped him of his top-ranking positions on several committees, pending the outcome of the ethics investigation.
But from McConnell on down the Republican leadership ranks, a theme emerged among Craig's fellow GOP senators: The Idaho senator would be breaking his word if he didn't resign. And while no one would say that Craig was lying, many of his Republican colleagues suggested that he had breached their trust.
"Once you announce you're resigning, you don't take it back," said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah. "As far as I'm concerned, it was his intent to resign on the 30th of September, and until I receive hard information from somebody other than the media, I will accept that as his intent."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino reiterated the same theme to reporters in Australia, where she is traveling with President Bush. So did Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who heads up the National Republican Senatorial Committee and who was among the first to suggest that it would be best for the GOP's 2008 election prospects if Craig were to leave office.
"Senator Ensign still believes Senator Craig made the right decision, and he takes him at his word," said Rebecca Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Republican senatorial committee.
Craig's spokesman hadn't returned phone calls or e-mails by late Wednesday afternoon. It wasn't clear when Craig planned to return to Washington.
The only hint of warmth toward the three-term senator came from Craig's fellow Idahoan, Sen. Mike Crapo, who said that everyone has a right to "vindicate" himself and that he'll continue to support whatever decision Craig makes.
But the other support that was offered was tepid, at best.
"It's a decision Senator Craig will have to make based on his own knowledge of the facts and the situation," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "But I wouldn't advise him. He should try to do what he thinks is right."
And Sen. Arlen Specter, the lone Republican to speak up for Craig on Sunday talk shows last weekend, said he would stand by his televised comments.