On Way to Gonzales Vote, Craig's GOP Star Extinguished
How's this for political scandal synergy?
The Alberto R. Gonzales scandal may have indirectly claimed another victim yesterday: Sen. Larry Craig, the onetime rising Idaho Republican star who admitted yesterday to pleading guilty to disorderly conduct in an airport men's restroom.
Shortly after 1 p.m. EDT, June 11, Craig was in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, making a connection to Washington. Detained by police for 45 minutes that day, Craig made it back to the Capitol for an early Monday evening vote to support Attorney General Gonzales. Democrats, led by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), had forced a highly unusual, non-binding vote of no-confidence in Gonzales, and Republicans used procedural tactics to prevent the vote.
A loyal Republican member of Congress for more than 20 years, Craig voted "nay" on June 11 on the procedural motion, along with more than 35 other Republicans, successfully blocking the no-confidence vote on Gonzales.
Make no mistake, this is a major event in the political life of a politician who once envisioned himself as Senate majority leader. Unlike Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who had been in the Senate barely two years when he admitted a "sin" when his name ended up on the client list of the "D.C. Madam", Craig has been a major force in the Senate for almost two decades. On gun rights, Craig is a member of the board of directors of the National Rifle Association and has been the leading GOP voice opposing any efforts at restricting gun rights on the Senate floor for years. A co-chairman of the Congressional Property Rights Coalition, Craig's biography begins by touting how he was born and raised on his family ranch in Midvale, Idaho.
A member of the Appropriations Committee, Craig is the top Republican on the subcommittee that doles out funding for the Interior Department and several other agencies.
And within the Senate Republican Conference, Craig had charted a course through the party's leadership ranks beginning in the early 1990s. He chaired the informal Steering Committee, a caucus that was formed in the 1980s to push the conservative agenda back when GOP moderates such as then-Sens. Bob Packwood (Ore.), William Cohen (Maine) and Alan Simpson (Wyo.) cast major influence in the party. Craig used that perch to win a narrow leadership victory in June 1996 over then-Sen. Dan Coats (Ind.) to become the Republican Policy Committee chairman. Craig assembled a strong staff that was in charge of putting out policy missives designed to back up the conservative flank.
Craig became a loyal soldier to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who was GOP leader during Craig's six-year tenure as the Policy chairman, the No. 4 ranking position. Under conference rules, all leadership posts face six-year term limits, and in 2002 Craig prepared his biggest political move - a bid to become Republican whip, the No. 2 spot.
That 2002 whip race was viewed as a proxy battle determining who would be in line to succeed Lott. Craig faced off for months and months against Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), with each man quietly jockeying for support among their colleagues for a race that would be held shortly after the 2002 midterms. But McConnell got out to an earlier start and raised more money for his colleagues. McConnell also had served in more critical positions that built up years of chits - chairing the Ethics Committee, the Rules and Administration Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Just before Election Day 2002, Craig officially bowed out of the race, handing the whip by acclamation to McConnell, who used that job to become Republican leader this year. [Lott's intemperate remarks at the late Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday in December 2002 hastened his demise, leading to a four-year reign by Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) as leader during which McConnell was always assumed to be the leader-in-waiting.]
Craig never again sought a leadership position, but remained influential within the conference on certain western issues. He is currently second in GOP seniority on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, behind Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), 75, who has been on a retirement watch in recent years. If he wins re-election in 2008, Craig could easily become chairman of that powerful panel before his term would expire in 2014.
But now political observers are anxiously awaiting Craig's next move, considering he was already being eyed for a potential retirement himself. And that decision may have been irrevocably altered by his pit stop in a Twin Cities restroom while jetting back to Washington for a Monday evening no-confidence vote in mid-June on Gonzales -- whose surprise resignation announcement was the story-of-the-day yesterday ... until Roll Call broke the Craig story.