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Craig says he'll stay in Senate despite plea denial

Larry Craig
Larry Craig

WASHINGTON — Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho, defying the wishes of many in his own Republican Party, said Thursday that he would remain in the Senate through next year despite a court ruling against him in Minnesota, where he sought to rescind his guilty plea stemming from an undercover sex sting.

Shortly after a judge denied his request to withdraw the August plea admitting to disorderly conduct, Craig said he had reversed his previously announced decision to leave the Senate if he could not get the plea thrown out, and would instead serve out his third term, which expires at the end of 2008. He said he would not run for a fourth.

"When my term has expired, I will retire and not seek re-election," said Craig, who was accused of soliciting sex from an undercover police officer in a men's room of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport in early June. "I hope this provides the certainty Idaho needs and deserves."

His decision was a major disappointment to Republican leaders, who had hoped Craig would keep his initial pledge and spare them the political liability of having a senior lawmaker who has become a punch line.

Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, demanded that Craig keep his initial pledge and leave the Senate.

Leaders of the ethics panel said that a complaint filed against Craig by the Republican leadership in August, when the news of his guilty plea became public, remained an open case, given his decision to stay in office.

If Craig sticks to his plan, he could be unseated before his term expires only if he is expelled by his fellow senators. Expulsion requires a two-thirds majority and has been used to remove 15 senators since 1789, most of them during the Civil War.

Craig has been treated politely but coolly by his colleagues, with many of them assuming he would leave if the court rejected his effort to withdraw his plea, which was considered likely from the beginning.

Republicans unhappy with Craig said they had little recourse except for the ethics inquiry, but it was clear the case would be at least a temporary distraction. The leadership canceled a Thursday afternoon news conference on the party position on children's health care rather than face a barrage of questions about Craig.