Although the door was clearly marked EXIT, for the past 72 hours Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, with encouragement from Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., seemed to be trying to re-enter a Senate Republican conference that had squeezed him out and wanted him to stay out.
Craig said last week he intended to resign after pleading guilty to a disorderly conduct misdemeanor stemming from his arrest in a Minneapolis airport men’s room.
Seeking to put the Craig episode behind the Republicans, GOP Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell told reporters Wednesday afternoon that he had conferred in the morning on the phone with Craig.
According to McConnell, Craig said he’ll try to get the guilty plea in Minneapolis dismissed and if he can do so, he “would come back to the Senate and deal with the Ethics Committee case he knows he will have, and to try to finish his term.”
If Craig can't get his guilty plea undone, then he'll quit as promised at the end of this month.
McConnell: Craig won't run again
Will Craig run for another term next year?
No, said McConnell. “That was what I thought I heard him say, that his effort would be to complete his term…. I do not believe he intends to run for re-election.”
But one mystery of the past few days lingered: What had Specter been up to with his televised advocacy for Craig?
Contrarian as ever, the Pennsylvania Republican seemed determined to come to the aid of his beleaguered colleague. On Sunday Specter said on Fox News, “When you have a statement of intent to resign, that intent can change…. On the evidence, Sen. Craig wouldn’t be convicted of anything.”
But Specter turned reticent Wednesday, refusing to add anything to his Fox statement.
His advocacy for Craig had not played well with GOP senators.
As he went into the Republican senators’ weekly luncheon Wednesday, one McConnell ally, Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah, portrayed McConnell’s successful effort to jettison Craig as something like a work of art.
McConnell ally sees 'a deft touch'
Last week, McConnell had “called him early, he talked the thing through with him, and I think we got the right result when Sen. Craig voluntarily agreed to step down. That is a demonstration of McConnell’s leadership, his sense of what is right for the institution, and his sense of timing.”
Bennett added, “Sen. McConnell’s conversation with Sen. Craig, so that Sen Craig voluntarily acted, showed a deft touch on the part of the leader that some other leaders might not have had.”
It was this work of political dexterity that Specter — at least for a couple of days — seemed to want to undo.
But Bennett's colleagues concurred with him that Craig had chosen his fate.
“I don’t think anybody was forced to resign,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
“No one can make him resign, no one can make him plead guilty. That’s his decision,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Oregon, told reporters it would be risky for Specter and Craig to pursue vindication.
'I fear for him'
“I fully understand (Craig) would want to clear his name in a court of law, but I fear for him in the response in the court of public opinion, that this story does not get smaller, it gets bigger” if Craig tries to undo his guilty plea and salvage his career.
As for Specter, Smith said, “I understand his advocacy as a defense lawyer in a court of law, but I am concerned about how that translates into the court of public opinion.”
Specter seemed to have antagonized his Republican colleagues by pleading Craig’s case on television, but going against the grain is second nature to the Pennsylvania senator.
He earned the wrath of fellow Republicans by voting against Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1986, in one of the defining defeats of the Reagan presidency.
During the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1999, he stood out from the other 99 senators by delivering a “Scotch verdict” of “not proven,” which he explained was not the same as “not guilty.”
Conservatives tried to stage a coup to oust Specter as Judiciary Committee chairman shortly after Republicans regained control of the Senate in the 2004 elections, but he survived, as he has through his career.
Being contrarian works for Specter — he’s serving his 26th year in the Senate and has endured primary challengers and Democratic opponents’ to thrive in a Democratic state.
Specter seems likely to be around for another three years at least, his reputation as a maverick as solid as ever.