For Craig, Senate is lonely business as usual

WASHINGTON — It's a lonely U.S. Senate for Larry Craig, whose uncertain status has upset his social and political standing in the clubby chamber.

Thursday, a day after he told his colleagues that he intends to stay in the Senate past his announced Sept. 30 retirement date, Craig was tight-lipped and terse when reporters asked him about his efforts a day earlier to overturn his guilty plea in a Minnesota courtroom. The Idaho senator referred to the statement he'd released Wednesday, in which he said he wouldn't resign until he'd seen the court case to a close.

Yet Craig went through the motions of his job Thursday, as he has since he returned to the Senate last week after a two-week absence.

His role on several committees has been limited since he was forced to step down from his leadership posts after the news broke last month that he'd been arrested and had pleaded guilty in an undercover sex sting in the men's room of the Minneapolis airport.

But he sat through a 90-minute Energy and Natural Resources Committee meeting on mining, one of his pet issues. He listened to every word of testimony and posed critical questions to one of the environmentalists who spoke at the hearing.

He cast several votes as the Senate debated Iraq, children's health insurance and other issues. Seated at his desk in the back row of the Senate chamber, Craig conversed with some colleagues, but mostly moved stiffly through their ranks without engaging much in the easy jocularity and bipartisan banter that go on throughout the day.

"I think for the most part he's been received pretty well," said Craig's Idaho colleague, Republican Sen. Michael Crapo, who's been one of his few supporters in the Senate. "They have been very warm on a personal level. I have not observed any negative confrontations or anything."

But there was little warmth from Republican Senate leaders, who've said they took Craig at his word when he said during a news conference Sept. 1 in Boise that he'd step down Sept. 30. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, refused to say anything about Craig.

"The only comment I have about Senator Craig is what I said before: I thought he made the right decision a couple of weeks ago," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., referring to Craig's initial announcement that he'd go at the end of the month.

Ensign, who's on McConnell's Senate Republican leadership team, warned that since Craig decided not to observe his Sept. 30 deadline, he faces the full glare of a Senate Ethics Committee hearing. Senate Republican leaders asked the committee to look into Craig's behavior to determine whether he'd engaged in conduct unbecoming to a senator.

"I don't think it's helping the institution, let alone the party," Ensign said of the ethics inquiry. "I don't think it's healthy for the institution to put it through that."

When he was asked whether he thought Craig should be expelled from the Senate, Ensign said the decision was "up to the Ethics Committee. That'll be up to them to make their recommendation to the full Senate."

Still, Craig has some friends remaining in the Republican ranks, including Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.

"At a human level, all of his colleagues wish him well, and understand the pain that this must be for Larry," Smith said. "What's always lost in these circumstances is the human dimension. And that needs to be remembered."

Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the only member of the Republican Senate leadership who'll say anything kind on Craig's behalf, said he could put himself in his Idaho colleague's shoes. Lott lost his post as Senate majority leader in 2002 over remarks that were considered racially insensitive.

Also, the two were half of the "Singing Senators" quartet, and Lott said that regardless of the circumstances of Craig's arrest, "when you're a friend, you're a friend."

"I'm sure it's been difficult," Lott said. "It's uncomfortable. It's pretty lonely sometimes. I think he's handling it as well as he possibly can. But as long as he is a senator for the people of Idaho, he has to do his job. He's doing what he has to do."