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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pressure for Sen. Larry Craig to resign mounted within his own party on Wednesday, two days after disclosures the Republican lawmaker pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in a men's toilet at an airport.
Republican presidential contender John McCain, an Arizona senator, told CNN the incident was "disgraceful" and added, "When you plead guilty to a crime, you shouldn't serve."
Other Republican lawmakers echoed McCain's call, while Senate Republican leaders asked Craig, 62, a third-term senator from Idaho, to step down temporarily from his major committee assignments. A White House spokesman said, "We are disappointed in the matter."
Craig pleaded guilty earlier this month to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct after his arrest in June in an undercover sting operation at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport where police were targeting lewd behavior in the men's toilet. News of the case became public on Monday.
Craig, a vocal opponent of gay rights, delivered a statement in Idaho on Tuesday that he was not a homosexual and insisting he had done nothing wrong.
"I am not gay, I never have been gay," declared Craig, his wife at his side.
Republican leaders on Tuesday asked the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate Craig's guilty plea. He recanted the guilty plea on Tuesday, saying he agreed to a misdemeanor charge without consulting a lawyer and in hopes of disposing of the case quickly.
Democrats have remained mostly silent about the case, but Craig received little support from his fellow Republicans.
Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican who is expected to face a tough re-election fight next year, said: "Senator Craig pleaded guilty to a crime involving conduct unbecoming a senator. He should resign."
In the U.S. House of Representatives, Republican Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan said of Craig, "I believe that he should step down as his conduct throughout this matter has been inappropriate for a U.S. senator."
Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, who used to be in an amateur singing quartet with Craig, told Fox News, "I'm not ready to call for that," when asked whether the senator should leave.
A Washington watchdog group welcomed the Republican leadership's decision to seek an ethics investigation against Craig but it questioned why they had not sought a similar probe of Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, also a Republican.
Vitter admitted a "serious sin" in July after he was linked to "D.C. Madam" Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who is accused of running a prostitution ring in Washington. She says it was a legal escort service.
"The only possible interpretation of the Republicans' differing reaction to the two cases is that Sen. Craig's case involves gay sex. Apparently soliciting for heterosexual sex does not offend the 'family values' platform in the way that soliciting for gay sex does," the Committee for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said in a statement.
News of the incident prompted Craig to resign as Idaho chairman of Republican Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. Romney said it was "disgusting" that people in public office continued to disappoint.
Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky in Mississippi