WASHINGTON – As prominent Republicans began calling for Larry Craig to resign, the Idaho senator agreed on Wednesday to step down from his committee leadership posts while the Senate ethics panel investigates the circumstances surrounding his guilty plea in connection to a June arrest at a Minnesota airport.
Senators John McCain, Norm Coleman and Rep. Peter Hoekstra all said Wednesday that Craig should resign. The White House also voiced disappointment with his situation.
Craig, a Republican, was arrested in June and accused of attempting to take part in lewd conduct with an undercover policeman. He pleaded guilty on Aug. 1 to disorderly conduct.
Craig is the top Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, as well as the top party member on Energy and Natural Resources and Appropriations subcommittees. He will give up his ranking status on those groups, but will retain his seat on the panels.
"This is not a decision we take lightly but we believe this is in the best interest of the Senate until this situation is resolved by the Ethics Committee," said a joint statement released by top Senate Republican leaders Mitch McConnell, Trent Lott, Jon Kyl, Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Ensign.
The three-term senator said Tuesday he did not consult a lawyer or his family about the arrest because he was embarrassed. He said he is now consulting legal counsel to see if he can fight the guilty plea. Proclaiming "I am not gay," he insisted he did not try to engage the male officer in a sex act.
A Minnesota Judge on Wednesday decided to leave Craig's case open, which gives Craig a legal chance to try to overturn his plea. Nonetheless, three Republican members of Congress said Wednesday he should leave the Senate.
"Sen. Craig pled guilty to a crime involving conduct unbecoming a senator. ... He should resign," Coleman, R-Minn., said in a statement released by his office. He made similar remarks on local radio.
McCain, R-Ariz., told CNN that the decision was Craig's to make and it was up to the people of Idaho. "But my opinion is that when you plead guilty to a crime, you shouldn't serve. That's not a moral stand. That's not a holier-than-thou. It's just a factual situation.
Earlier Wednesday, Hoekstra, R-Mich., told FOX News Radio that Craig needs to go.
"From my perspective it's time for Larry Craig to resign from the U.S. Senate. I think for Republicans we ought to say this is not the kind of leadership we expect from the people that have an 'R' behind their name," Hoekstra said.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said the administration is monitoring the situation, but is not involved in dispensing advice.
"We are disappointed in the matter. It has been referred to the Senate Ethics Committee, so they will have to address it. We hope that it will be resolved quickly, as that would be in the best interests of the Senate and the people of Idaho," Stanzel said.
A prominent conservative group, Judicial Watch, has also rung the bell for Craig's ouster.
"Senator Craig admittedly engaged in illegal activity that brings serious disrepute to the public office he holds. He should seriously consider resigning," said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton.
The negative reaction from other sectors of the party contrasted sharply with the local GOP response. On Tuesday, the Idaho Republican Party took a measured, wait-and-see stance on Craig's future while Democrats remained mum, content to let Republicans sort through the fallout.
"I would encourage all Idahoans to avoid rushing to judgment and making brash statements about a man who has dedicated his life to public service," GOP state party chairman Kirk Sullivan said in a statement.
The fallout, however, may be too much for Craig to withstand. Public attention is laser-focused on the topic in Idaho, and some social and religious conservatives and talk show hosts are calling on Craig to give up his seat. Political analysts say Craig will have trouble convincing Gem State voters that his 27-year political career is worth prolonging.
"I think what makes it very difficult is the guilty plea," said Randy Stapilus, a former political editor at the Idaho Statesman who has a political blog. "That is something a lot of people will have a tough time getting around."
It's not clear if Craig — whose term ends in 2009 — will run for re-election. He said Tuesday he'd make a decision next month.
Idaho Republicans possess a fiercely independent streak, characterized by a healthy dose of libertarian values and distrust of the federal government and the media. They generally hold deep religious beliefs and conservative social values.
"It all makes it hard sometimes to predict exactly how Idahoans would vote or how Idaho politicians will act on certain issues," said James Weatherby, a professor emeritus at Boise State University who knew Craig when they were students at the University of Idaho.
Craig, 62, defended himself Tuesday against a police report alleging he attempted to engage in a homosexual encounter with an undercover officer.
Flanked by his wife, Suzanne, Craig stated three times that he was not gay. He cast his arrest for lewd conduct as unfounded and his subsequent guilty plea to disorderly conduct as an error in judgment spurred by frustration with the state's biggest newspaper prying into his past.
The Idaho Statesman published a lengthy story on Tuesday, a day after the June 11 arrest was first reported, detailing allegations of homosexual behavior by Craig. The senator denied the allegations and contended the paper was engaged in a witch hunt. In a statement, the newspaper said its story spoke for itself.
"While I was not involved in any inappropriate conduct at the Minneapolis airport or anywhere else, I chose to plead guilty to a lesser charge in hopes of making it go away," Craig said. "It's clear, though, that through my actions I have brought a cloud over Idaho. For that, I ask the people of Idaho for their forgiveness."
The paper's managing editor defended the reporting.
"As our story today demonstrated, we followed leads and asked questions. We worked hard and behaved responsibly, not publishing a story until it was ready. We didn't print anything until the senator pleaded guilty. Our story outlined what we've done and it speaks for itself," said editor Bill Manny.
In Idaho, with its 1.4 million people, politicians know many supporters by name. The state also likes its Republicans. The GOP controls the statehouse and Congress, and President Bush carried the state in 2004 with 68 percent of the vote.
More than 166,000 residents are Roman Catholic and more than 385,000 Mormon.
"This isn't Massachusetts, that's for sure," said Chris Preston, a merchant in downtown Boise. "And because of that I think it's going to be tough for the state to forgive his transgressions."
Reports state that police Sgt. Dave Karsnia was investigating allegations of sexual conduct in Minneapolis airport restrooms when he went into a stall. The complaint against Craig alleged that he employed "a signal often used by persons communicating a desire to engage in sexual conduct."
Craig was arrested, read his rights, fingerprinted and photographed for a mug shot released by police showing him in coat and tie. He signed a guilty plea on Aug. 1 and later paid $575 in fines and fees and was placed on unsupervised probation for a year.
FOX News' Trish Turner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.