Beset by scandal, Craig sees his Senate clout evaporate

Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID)
Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) Rafael Suanes / MCT

WASHINGTON — Sen. Larry Craig had plenty to say about the global warming bill that was being debated by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

But after nearly three decades in public life and at a time when he should be at the height of his influence and power, the Idaho Republican had to wait his turn. Senate protocol put him at the bottom of the list, after even the most junior U.S. senator, John Barrasso of Wyoming, a Republican who was appointed this summer.

In the span of a week after the news broke late this summer that he'd been arrested in a sex sting at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, Craig saw his political status and personal reputation plummet.

Pressured to resign, he stayed on. But he was forced to surrender his leadership posts on several Senate committees and to watch as his GOP colleagues called for an ethics investigation into his behavior.

He's rallied by mounting a public relations blitz, including a prime-time interview on NBC. He's hired a high-profile Washington defense attorney to fight an uphill battle to withdraw his guilty plea in Minnesota courts.

Despite all that effort and expense, Craig has yet to regain his reputation or his political standing in the Senate. Instead of being known for his accomplishments, such as his party-defying take on immigration, he's now known for a toe-tapping incident in a men's room stall and for being too stubborn to leave Congress.

When he was asked last week how his colleagues treat him, what sort of working relationship he has with them and what he's been up to, Craig responded: "I'm actively working in my committees."

So he is. He'll be the Republican representative from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee next month when the United Nations convenes a Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia. He lost his leadership role on the Senate Appropriations Committee but retained millions of dollars of spending earmarked for Idaho.

And after a two-month hiatus, Craig has returned to making floor speeches, when senators are allowed to talk about just about anything they want. Once a habitual speechmaker who gave nine floor speeches in June alone, Craig stopped on Aug. 2 and didn't start up again until Oct. 18, when he offered up some words in support of the Special Olympics in Idaho. Since then, he's expounded on the origins of wildfires and the farm bill.

The Senate GOP caucus isn't exactly a friendly place these days for Craig, a conservative who once held a leadership position that made him instrumental in steering party ideology. Although his fellow senators are outwardly friendly, on the Senate floor they appear to distance themselves from him.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader who led the charge for Craig to step down, still will say nothing about his Republican colleague.

When there's any warmth for Craig, it's more likely to come from Democrats who appreciate his help on bipartisan legislation, such as the farm bill or mining legislation, areas where Craig has considerable expertise.

Craig, along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., continues to be one of the main obstacles to revising the 1872 Mining Act. The House of Representatives already has passed a rewrite, but Reid opposes many of its provisions. With help from Craig, the majority leader is trying to protect jobs, said Reid spokesman Jon Summers.

Conversations between Craig's and Reid's staffs have been instrumental, Summers said, and there's been no consideration of Craig's personal situation or his status within the GOP.

"Senator Reid sees that as a personal issue, one that Senator Craig has to deal with with his family and his party," Summers said. "It isn't something that Senator Reid has been interested in getting involved in at all."

It's become more difficult for Craig to engage in charged ideological debates, though, and there's no better example than immigration.

Until the news of his arrest broke, Craig was the Republican standard-bearer for AgJobs, an immigration bill that would streamline the existing guest-worker program and offer legal status and possible U.S. citizenship for 1.5 million illegal immigrant farm workers. Co-sponsored with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., it was the one piece of immigration legislation that had any chance — albeit slim — of passing the Senate this year.

With Craig weakened by scandal, the bill lost one of its highest-profile Republican backers in the Senate.

Proponents of the legislation are looking for other GOP senators who are willing to take Craig's place, said Manual Cunha Jr., who heads the Nisei Farmers League, a coalition of growers in California's San Joaquin Valley.

They still consider Craig a supporter, but mostly in spirit, Cunha said.

"The senator has always said, 'I'm going to keep working on this,' " Cunha said. "He's not out in front because he's trying to deal with many other issues. I don't know if it's the word diminished, but I think his visual appearance is more behind the scenes today than it was prior to the incident."

Cunha said that it was disheartening to see Craig stumble.

"I respect him a lot, and I still do today," Cunha said. "He had the guts to stand up for something he believed in and didn't waffle and play the politics. It just really bothers me that my own Republican Party came out right away, and boom! Just dumped this guy, a friend, a person who has worked hard."

Conservative groups such as the Idaho Values Alliance still expect Craig to vote their way on social issues, said Bryan Fischer, the alliance's executive director.

But Fischer said he felt that the nature of Craig's arrest made it impossible for him to be an outspoken adversary of two bills the group opposes that would add sexual orientation to employment discrimination and hate crimes laws.

"I haven't seen anything to change my perspective," Fischer said. "Because of what had happened, it was going to be impossible for the senator to be a vocal leader on pro-family issues, because his credibility had taken such a hit. The senator has just put himself in the position where it's really not realistic for him to be able to do that."