WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho reversed course on Thursday and said he would remain in the U.S. Congress despite his conviction in a sex-sting operation at an airport men’s room.
In a statement just hours after a Minnesota court refused to let him withdraw his guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct, Craig said he planned to complete his third term that ends in January 2009.
“When my term has expired, I will retire and not seek re-election,” said Craig, 62. “I hope this provides the certainty Idaho needs and deserves.”
Craig has insisted he did nothing wrong, did not try to solicit sex from an undercover policeman and is not gay. But under pressure from fellow Republicans, he announced on September 1 he intended to resign on September 30.
He began to waffle about his resignation shortly afterward, creating uncertainty about his future even as the Idaho governor interviewed some two dozen possible successors and had picked a possible replacement in the event Craig resigned.
Even if Craig left, it would have no impact on control of the Senate, now held by Democrats 51-49.
Republican leadership aides said there were no plans to try again to push Craig out, and there was no way to force him to leave, although he will face a Senate ethics probe.
The case has been a major political embarrassment for Republicans, since they have long billed themselves as the party of conservative family values.
Democrats won control of Congress in last year’s elections amid a series of Republican scandals, including one involving a Florida congressman sending sexually suggestive electronic messages to teenage male interns.
Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, who heads the Senate Republican campaign committee, said Craig should step down as he earlier said he would.
“He had his day in court,” Ensign said. “I am calling on Senator Craig to keep his word. ... It’s the right thing to do for the Senate. It is the right thing to do for his party.”
Sen. Mike Crapo, Craig’s fellow Republican from Idaho, was one of Craig’s few supporters, saying, “I think it is perfectly acceptable for him to change his decision” to step down as he explores possible court appeals.
Craig said in his statement, “As I continued to work for Idaho over the past three weeks here in the Senate, I have seen that it is possible for me to work here effectively.”
Craig was arrested at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on June 11 after an undercover police officer said Craig sat down in a stall next to him and used hand and foot signals to indicate he was soliciting sex. Craig said his actions were misread and that he was not gay.
Craig said he did nothing wrong but panicked and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly misconduct. After the case became public in August, triggering a political firestorm, he sought to have his guilty plea withdrawn.
The senator announced his decision to stay in the Senate shortly after Judge Charles Porter of the Hennepin County District Court in Minnesota dismissed arguments made a week ago that Craig was rushed into pleading guilty and only did so after being promised secrecy by the undercover officer who arrested him.
Porter ruled Craig’s guilty plea to a disorderly conduct charge was “accurate, voluntary and intelligent, and ... supported by the evidence.”
“I am extremely disappointed with the ruling issued today,” Craig said in his statement. “I am innocent of the charges against me. I continue to work with my legal team to explore my additional legal options.”
In his 27-page ruling, Porter revealed more details of Craig’s encounter with Sgt. Dave Karsnia in adjoining bathroom stalls at Minneapolis’ airport.
Craig peeked at the officer, sat down in a stall next to him and used hand and foot signals to indicate he was soliciting sex. When Karsnia held his police identification underneath the stall divider, Craig said, “No,” and argued “You solicited me.”
A week later, Craig confronted Karsnia at the airport and was told to call the local prosecutor, which he did several times before mailing in his guilty plea. A $1,000 fine was cut in half, and he was ordered to pay $575 in fines and court costs and given a 10-day suspended sentence.
Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Donna Smith in Washington, and Michael Conlon and Andrew Stern in Chicago