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McConnell: Craig Case "Clearly Distinguishable" From Vitter, Stevens

Pronouncing the Larry Craig gay-sex sting episode "over," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said today that the Idaho Republican was forced to resign last weekend because of the finality of his guilty plea to disorderly conduct charges, and not because of the political stigma of the homosexual allegations inherent in the arrest.

McConnell said that Craig's legal problems were "clearly distinguishable" from those of Republican Sens. Ted Stevens (Alaska) and David Vitter (La.), because Stevens has asserted his innocence in an on-going corruption investigation and Vitter's recent admission of committing a "sin" involving a prostitution ring occurred before he came to the Senate.

"This had to do with admission of responsibility as opposed to charges or suggestions. ... There's a substantial difference between a conclusion to a matter and allegations that are being denied or behavior that occurred before you even came to the Senate," McConnell in his first public comments since the Craig scandal broke early last week.

But, in a 23-minute press conference, McConnell acknowledged that he has no particular doctrine for how he is going to deal with senators caught up in scandals and investigations. "All of these will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis," he said.

In the wake of Craig's forced resignation, Republicans are facing questions about how exactly they handle corruption among their own colleagues. There is no precedent in recent Senate history for the speed and force with which Republican leaders moved against Craig, following the disclosure that he had pleaded guilty Aug. 8 to a charge of disorderly conduct in a Minneapolis airport restroom. McConnell knows this, as he was the top Republican on the Ethics Committee in the mid-1990s and helped lead a several-year investigation into sexual misconduct charges against Bob Packwood (R-Ore.). Ironically, Craig was also on the committee at the time.

But Craig was not given several years to defend himself before the Ethics panel, as Packwood was before he resigned in 1995 rather than face a public expulsion trial. Instead, Craig was blasted by critics and targeted for punitive actions that left him no choice but resig. The backlash began Tuesday with McConnell's call for an ethics investigation of the men's room incident, continued Wednesday when the GOP leadership team stripped Craig of his top committee assignments, and culminated at the end of the week when the National Republican Senatorial Committee, with McConnell's assent, announced it would not support Craig for re-election.

For now there will be no call for an investigation of Vitter, who admitted his contact with the D.C. Madam two months ago and promptly fled the chamber for an entire week. Nor will Stevens be relieved of his senior posts on the Appropriations and Commerce panels, even though those committee assignments are central to an FBI corruption investigation that led to a raid of the senator's Alaska home five weeks ago.

McConnell did not address Vitter or Stevens by name when explaining the differences in their particular cases. "The individual involved maintains his innocence," he said regarding Stevens.

Referring to Vitter, McConnell said that no criminal charges had been brought against the first-term senator and his admitted involvement with a prostitute took place more than three years ago "before this individual came to the Senate, therefore raising a serious question as to whether the [Senate] ethics committee would even have jurisdiction over it."

Craig, however, has maintained that he "over reacted" in pleading guilty to charges brought by an undercover airport police officer operating a gay-sex sting, in hopes of keeping the case quiet. He said he was worried because his hometown newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, was conducting an investigation into past complaints about his sexual conduct at the time. He maintains his innocence and has hired a legal team to try overturning his own guilty plea.

McConnell doesn't believe that effort will be successful. He declined to say whether he believes Craig when he said he was not gay and was not soliciting sex in the restroom when he was arrested June 11.

"I think the episode is over," McConnell said. "We will have a new senator from Idaho in the next month or so, and we're going to move on."

By Paul Kane  |  September 4, 2007; 2:40 PM ET
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