WASHINGTON – Several Republican colleagues of indicted Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens distanced themselves politically on Wednesday by donating campaign contributions from him to charity, while other Republicans declined to comment on whether they support his decision to remain in office.
Stevens, meanwhile, returned to work in the Senate, actively participating in a committee bill drafting session and casting votes on the floor, where he received warm embraces and gestures of personal support from several colleagues.
"Hey Ted ... say it ain't so," said longtime Democratic colleague and friend Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
But several GOP colleagues, when asked whether Stevens should remain in office despite accusations that he took more than a quarter-million dollars' worth of unreported gifts, offered no encouragement other than to say he is presumed innocent until proven otherwise.
"I'm not going to talk about Sen. Stevens, OK?" said Mel Martinez, R-Fla. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., also declined to comment, while Sam Brownback, R-Kan., declared, "He's innocent until proven guilty."
At the same time, at least five Republicans up for re-election shed contributions from Stevens and his political action committee. They included: John Sununu, R-N.H.; Gordon Smith, R-Ore.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C.; and Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
The shaky support for Stevens was evident in the wake of accusations he lied about accepting gifts from oil services contractor Veco Corp. His indictment on seven felony counts adds to his party's already bleak electoral prospects in November, and could cost the GOP a Senate seat that should be safe.
While Stevens has vowed to fight charges and, through a spokesman, to move "full steam ahead" with his re-election bid, he's received little support from Alaska's Republican governor and no comment yet from his own GOP leader in the Capitol.
Stevens refused to comment to a pack of reporters shadowing his moves around the Capitol. He is scheduled to be arraigned in federal court Thursday. It will be up to a judge to decide where Stevens can travel, whom he needs to check in with and what rules he must follow as he campaigns and continues working as a senator.
Stevens' indictment could knock Republicans off message just as party leaders hoped to gain traction on one of the few issues in which voters solidly side with them: producing more domestic oil.
He is the most prominent advocate of oil drilling in protected areas, and charges that he took the gifts will play right into Democratic efforts to paint Republicans as a party captive to "Big Oil."
Stevens, 84, the first sitting U.S. senator to face federal indictment since 1993, declared Tuesday, "I am innocent of these charges and intend to prove that." His campaign spokesman said his office had been flooded with calls and e-mails from supporters urging him to press on.
Whether Stevens will indeed press ahead despite being stripped of his powerful committee posts — or seek an exit strategy that might keep his once safe seat in GOP hands — is anybody's guess.
"People deserve better," House GOP Leader John Boehner of Ohio said Wednesday. But Boehner stopped short of saying Stevens should resign. "That's a decision he'll have to make."
Stevens' indictment gives Democrats a new edge in their drive to win his seat and more momentum in their push to capture a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate.
Republicans are playing defense in far more House and Senate races than the majority Democrats. And they're hobbled by large financial disadvantages in a punishing re-election climate.
Colleagues in both parties reacted Tuesday with sorrow about Stevens' indictment on seven felony charges of not reporting the gifts from VECO and Bill Allen, the company's chief executive.
"He's dedicated his life to the Senate and Alaska and you just hate to see something like this happen," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., a Stevens friend.
Stevens has been stripped of his committee leadership posts under GOP rules, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., failed to offer any words of support Tuesday. Stevens was the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee and the influential Senate Defense Appropriations subcommittee.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin told reporters Tuesday that it "would be premature at this point" to demand that Stevens resign.
The Justice Department accused Stevens of accepting expensive work on his home in Girdwood, Alaska, a ski resort town outside Anchorage, from VECO and its executives. VECO normally builds oil processing equipment and pipelines, but its employees helped do the work on Stevens' home.
Prosecutors said that work included a new first floor, garage, wraparound deck, plumbing and electrical wiring. He also is accused of accepting from VECO a gas grill, furniture and tools, and of failing to report swapping an old Ford for a new Land Rover for his daughter Lily.
From May 1999 to August 2007, prosecutors said, the senator concealed "his continuing receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of things of value from a private corporation."
Stevens had been expected to win his six-way primary on Aug. 26, and then go on to face a steep challenge from Mark Begich, the Democratic mayor of Anchorage.