Idaho Sen. Larry Craig is seeking the dismissal of a Senate ethics committee complaint on Wednesday and relayed word that he will resign his seat only if he fails to withdraw a guilty plea stemming from an airport men's room sex sting by Sept. 30.
"He said he is going to try and get the case in Minnesota dismissed," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, telling reporters he had heard from the Idaho lawmaker earlier in the day.
Earlier in the day, Craig's lawyers appealed to the ethics committee to dismiss the complaint against him. Craig has said the complaint stems merely from personal conduct, and did not relate to his official duties.
Craig, 62, was arrested June 11 as part of a police sting operation on lewd behavior at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Craig originally faced a charge in connection with attempted lewd behavior — he allegedly gave hand and foot signals often used to communicate the desire for closed-door behavior — but on Aug. 1 he entered a guilty plea to disorderly conduct.
The news is an abrupt turnaround, but not one that was completely unexpected. Last week, Craig vowed to overturn the guilty plea he entered last month in connection to the arrest. Facing overwhelming political pressure, he announced Saturday that he intended to resign at the end of September.
But, according to a voice mail that turned up accidentally on a Washington resident's message system — first reported by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call — the conservative Republican was hedging his resignation before he announced it.
On Wednesday, McConnell twice declined to answer when asked whether he believes Craig should quit his seat. "My view remains what I said last Saturday. I thought he made the difficult, but correct decision to resign. That would still be my view today," he said.
In a voice message Craig mistakenly left Saturday at a wrong number for someone named "Billy" — before his announcement that he intended to resign — Craig raised doubts over whether he should leave the Senate.
Craig has hired a high-powered crisis management team including Billy Martin, the lawyer for Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick in his dogfighting case, but it was unknown if there was a connection.
In the message, he called on the friend to help fight for him and said he was toning down his initial statement to resign to include the word "intent."
"Yes, Billy, this is Larry Craig calling. You can reach me on my cell. (Sen.) Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) is now willing to come out in my defense, arguing that it appears, by all that he knows, that I've been railroaded and all that," Craig said.
He continued: "Having all of that, we have reshaped my statement a little bit to say it is my intent to resign on Sept. 30.
"I think it is important for you to make as bold a statement as you are comfortable with this afternoon, and I would hope you could make it in front of the cameras."
Specter, a former prosecutor, on Wednesday said he had no further comment but on Sunday, speaking with FOX News, Specter said Craig should explore his legal options.
"I'd still like to see Sen. Craig fight this case. ... I'd like to see Larry Craig go back to court, seek to withdraw his guilty plea and fight the case," Specter said.
"I've had some experience in these kinds of matters since my days as Philadelphia district attorney, and on the evidence, Sen. Craig wouldn't be convicted of anything. And he's got his life on the line and 27 years in the House and Senate, and I'd like to see him fight the case, because I think he could be vindicated," he added.
Many believe it's still unlikely that Craig would serve out the remainder of his term, which is set to end in January 2009, but Craig's advocates have been ramping up the possibility.
Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., who is a military judge, said it would be unlikely that Craig will succeed in overturning his plea.
"I thought his decision (to resign), given everything I know, was wise. The idea of reopening that decision expecting some conclusion legally by the end of September, I think, is not going to happen," Graham said.
A senior Republican aide told FOX News: "This whole thing is moot: Craig's office said that if he can clear his legal and ethics issues by Sept. 30, then he might not resign. But there's no way the Ethics Committee will act that quickly and there's no way a court can act that quickly, if they act at all (because Craig already entered a plea). There's no way he can get that done in 25 calendar days. It takes longer than that to get a speeding ticket handled in court."
But on Wednesday, Craig's attorney continued to carry the message that Craig no longer is required — politically or legally — to step down and further raised the possibility that Craig would not step down at the end of the month as initially planned.
Attorney Stan Brand, speaking on NBC's "Today" show, said the Senate has no business looking into the conduct of one of its own following Craig's guilty plea.
He said precedents dating back 220 years make clear the Senate does not consider misdemeanor private conduct to be a fit subject of inquiry. The Senate ethics committee has been charged with looking into the Craig matter.
"We ought to seek to have the (Senate ethics) committee dismiss this outright," Brand said. "The Republican leadership called for an ethics investigation that had nothing to do with his office," said Brand on NBC's "Today" show.
And another spokesman for Craig says the three-term senator may yet fight for his seat if he can clear his name with the ethics panel and a Minnesota court.
"It's not such a foregone conclusion anymore that the only thing he could do was resign," Sidney Smith, Craig's spokesman in Boise, said Tuesday.
"We're still preparing as if Sen. Craig will resign Sept. 30, but the outcome of the legal case in Minnesota and the ethics investigation will have an impact on whether we're able to stay in the fight — and stay in the Senate," Smith said.
White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino was cool to the proposition of Craig's remaining in the Senate. The White House never asked Craig to go, but President Bush told Craig his announcement Saturday was "the right thing to do."
"I don't think that our views have changed," Perino said, "but, of course, this is the senator's decision, the senator's seat."
In Washington, D.C., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's spokesman and the senatorial campaign committee had no immediate comment on Craig's reconsidering.
Craig, who remains in Idaho, continues to maintain he did nothing wrong at the airport and that his only mistake was pleading guilty.
In addition to Vick lawyer Martin, Washington attorney Brand makes up another part of Craig's high-powered crisis management team. Brand is a former general counsel to the U.S. House.
Martin is looking into the Minnesota guilty plea; Brand, who represented Major League Baseball in the congressional investigation into steroid use, will handle any Senate Ethics Committee probe.
Before Craig announced his intent to resign at month's end, McConnell called Craig's actions "unforgivable," while the White House termed the situation disappointing. Republican Senate colleagues John McCain of Arizona and Norm Coleman of Minnesota said Craig should resign.
Republican Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter has not named Craig's successor and hasn't said when he would.
Craig has won support from his family, including his three children, whom he adopted after marrying their mother, the former Suzanne Scott, in 1983. Jay Craig, 33, told The Associated Press that he, his brother, Michael Craig, 38, and his sister, Shae Howell, 36, spoke candidly with their father about what happened in Minnesota.
"Our conclusion was there was no wrongdoing there," Jay Craig said. "He was a victim of circumstance, in the wrong place at the wrong time when this sting operation was going on."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.