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Renzi Move a Mixed Blessing for GOP

Indicted Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) yesterday announced his decision about his future in the House: He's staying -- for now, anyway. And while Republican leaders may not be outwardly pleased with that choice, it could actually help them as much as it hurts.

Renzi was charged last week by a federal grand jury in Tucson with 35 counts of money laundering, wire fraud, extortion and other offenses related to a land-swap scheme and his alleged embezzlement of money from his own company to fund his first House campaign. On Monday evening, he released a statement saying: "I will not resign and take on the cloak of guilt because I am innocent. My legal team ... will handle these legal issues while I continue to serve my constituents."

Driving home that point, Renzi showed up for work in the House Monday evening to record his votes on a handful of bills, after a day of private speculation among Republicans about whether he would even come to the Capitol this week.

Renzi had already said back in August that he would not run for reelection in 2008, but he seems intent on sticking around for the rest of the year as he awaits the start of his trial. His arraignment is scheduled for March 6 in Tucson.

Renzi's announcement sparked no official statement from the GOP leadership Monday evening, though House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) made his views clear in a statement Friday: "I strongly urge Rep. Renzi to seriously consider whether he can continue to effectively represent his constituents under these circumstances."

Here's the problem for Republicans: They lost control of the House in the 2006 elections at least in part because of real and perceived corruption in their ranks. No one disputes that. So Boehner began the 110th Congress intent on changing that perception, pressuring members under scrutiny like Renzi and John Doolittle (R-Calif.) to surrender their committee assignments and give up their plans for reelection, and he called other lawmakers under investigation onto the carpet to explain why they shouldn't have to do the same. So the last thing Boehner and his colleagues need is an indicted Renzi still haunting the Capitol and serving as a daily reminder that their party's perceived corruption problem hasn't gone away.

But that's not the whole story. Boehner has another worry on his mind -- this November's election, which is shaping up to be another difficult one for the GOP as the party fights to defend scores of open seats with far less money in the bank than Democrats have.

If Renzi hangs around the rest of the year, he may generate some more bad publicity, but the race to replace him in Arizona's 1st District should at least be manageable for the GOP in November, especially with home state Sen. John McCain at the top of the ballot.

If, however, Renzi quits now, that would trigger an expensive special election, forcing the National Republican Congressional Committee to spend lots of its precious cash. The seat leans only slightly to the GOP; voters there gave President Bush 54 percent of the vote in 2004 and 51 percent in 2000. And while other candidates might jump into a special election, the current leading Republican contender, mining association executive Sidney Hay, has not been embraced by her party leadership and trails the top Democratic hopeful, ex-state Rep. Anne Kirkpatrick, on the fundraising front.

Special elections are unpredictable, since they attract far more media attention and infusions of cash from outside groups than regular contests do. And a race in Arizona could become a high-stakes proxy war in the presidential race, as McCain would look to protect his backyard and Democrats would seek an early symbolic blow against the expected GOP nominee.

Under Arizona law, if Renzi resigns more than six months before the next general election -- or before May 4 -- there will be a special primary and then a special election to replace him. The special election would take place between 110 and 150 days after he quits. So if Renzi were to resign effective today, the special election would happen some time between mid-June and late July. If he quits after May 4, the seat will stay vacant until his replacement is chosen on Election Day, Nov. 4.

Of course, Renzi isn't the only lawmaker under fire who has decided to stay in office.

Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) serves in the House today, more than eight months after being indicted on corruption and bribery charges. He is still awaiting trial, and may even run for reelection this November. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) isn't running for reelection, but he is still in the Senate - much to his leadership's chagrin -- despite having previously pledged to resign after pleading guilty to disorderly conduct charges stemming from a sex sting in an airport bathroom.

So what should Boehner and his fellow leaders do? Theoretically, they could call for a vote to expel Renzi from the House (though they won't, because the Arizonan hasn't been convicted of anything). They can call for a House Ethics Committee investigation (if one hasn't already begun), though that panel would likely defer to the ongoing federal prosecution. Or it may be enough for Republicans to reiterate that they want Renzi to resign, and hope the public understands that there's nothing more they can do about it. Renzi is a lame duck with mounting legal bills and no committee assignments. They can't punish him any more than they already have.

And if Renzi decides to stick around at least until May 5, Republicans may save themselves a couple million dollars in campaign cash and improve their chances of holding onto his seat. Even under this ethical cloud, the GOP may yet find a silver lining.

By Ben Pershing  |  February 26, 2008; 8:29 AM ET
Categories:  2008 Campaign , Ethics and Rules , GOP Leaders , House  
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Let him stay. It will give the Democrats more to campaign on in Arizona in November.

Posted by: Blain45 | February 26, 2008 10:44 AM | Report abuse

No doubt these SOBs hang around for their self and self righteous interests and the tax payers pays them, because the politicians set it up for themselves. Real democracy is action and that is what places like Kenya is following.

Posted by: jerath | February 26, 2008 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Leave the poster boy for conservative Republican values in office. A constant reminder of the hypocrisy of Bush-lovers.

Posted by: thebob.bob | February 26, 2008 12:27 PM | Report abuse

If convicted, does he lose his pension or do we the sheeple still have to pay him for life? How many of these scumbags must we endure before we recognize they are only in DC to feed like pigs at the taxpayers trough? We're stupid beyond words to treat it as business as usual!

Posted by: sheri | February 27, 2008 10:35 AM | Report abuse

For the attention of seri,the bob bob and jerath: We have democrats that have been in congress for 2o and 30 years feeding off the govrnment teat, but you don't mention that and Mr jefferson from Losisiana has been there forever, and is under indictment, but you didn't mention that either. What about the Rep from West Virginia who is under indictment and is still chairman of a committee, that overseas the Justice Dept. budget. You all cut off your nose to spite your face when a republican is supposedly in trouble, but conviently leave out all the democrats who have made the congress a retirement home. Get real or keep you mouths shut.

Posted by: elmerck | February 27, 2008 11:04 AM | Report abuse

There is not one iota of difference between the parties as far as criminal behavior. Even the President skirts reasonable cooperation with the law. All those signing statements so he can just ignore the will of the House and Senate. I live in Arizona and between Mr. Renzi's indictment and John McCain's phony statements about how clean he is concerning lobbyists when all along he has been sucking up to lobbyists and asking special favors of them when the guy's business was before his own committee. Well, nuff said. It is really discouraging to now know that the straight talk express is simply a bunch of fluff for him.

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