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Ensign Scandal Rattles Senate

Federal financial disclosure laws would not require him to list the payments as a liability in his financial disclosure forms, and he would likely be free to pay it out of his own pocket. However, the use of campaign funds as hush money is illegal. Any use of federal funds — if, for example, the blackmailer was a staffer or otherwise employed by the Senate — would also be illegal.

Additionally, if Ensign’s father, who is a wealthy casino owner and developer in Nevada, arranged to finance any payments, that could be viewed as a gift under Senate rules.

Ensign has long been seen as one of the GOP’s up-and-comers — a charismatic lawmaker who could carry the party’s conservative message to independent voters.

Ensign was at the forefront of calls for former Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) to resign after Craig pleaded guilty following a sex sting in a Minneapolis airport men’s room, and he has been a strong supporter of anti-abortion and anti-gay-marriage legislation.

Although he has repeatedly denied eyeing higher office, Ensign recently made a trip to the presidential battleground state of Iowa and has used his position at the Policy Committee to build a national platform for himself.

Republican aides said that if the scandal is limited to the affair, history indicates he could recover at least some of his position. Several aides pointed out that Vitter’s troubles did not weaken his position with his colleagues, while former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is widely considered a viable candidate for the party’s presidential nomination in 2012 — despite acknowledged affairs and having sought a divorce while his then-wife was in the hospital with cancer.

Republicans said it is too soon to gauge the political fallout from the scandal.

“I don’t know. I think the future determines that. He is a bright young man, and lots of people make mistakes,” Coburn said.

DeMint said he is unsure what effect the scandal will have on his long-term position within the party.

“I don’t know. I really can’t say. I think John Ensign is a great friend, and I think he is a great leader and obviously my hope is that he’ll continue to serve in the Senate for a long time, so that’s really up to the people of Nevada,” DeMint said.

But DeMint acknowledged the credibility gap for politicians has widened over the past few years and that for members of a party that places as much emphasis on family values and morality as the GOP, the appearance of hypocrisy can be difficult to shake.

“All politicians have a credibility problem right now, and it’s up to us to earn the trust of the American people ... and the thing is people don’t like hypocrites. We’ve got to live up to what we say,” he said.

Emily Pierce, Jessica Brady and David M. Drucker contributed to this report.

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