Senators Counting on Voters to Bail Them Out on Stevens

Posted October 29, 2008 at 6:20pm

While Senate Republican and Democratic leaders will find little to agree on during election night, senior lawmakers in both parties might find themselves rooting against one common opponent — Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

Stevens’ conviction on seven counts in federal court this week — and his insistence that he will not only continue to stand for re-election, but will serve out his term while appealing the decision — has put party elders in the awkward position of hoping the longest-serving Republican is defeated to avoid a protracted ethics and expulsion process.

Any Ethics Committee action hinges on his re-election: Should he lose his bid, it is unlikely the Ethics panel would initiate a preliminary inquiry, the first stage of a full-fledged investigation, with only a few weeks left in the 110th Congress.

But if Stevens prevails Tuesday, the panel would almost certainly begin an investigation immediately, and Stevens would likely face an effort to expel him from the Senate if not in the waning days of the 110th, certainly in the beginning of the next session of Congress.

Stevens has said he will not step aside and is appealing his convictions.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has warned that Stevens will essentially be persona non grata in the Senate, telling reporters Tuesday that he should resign immediately, and that he faces expulsion if he does not.

“If he did not do that … there is a 100 percent certainty that he would be expelled from the Senate,” McConnell said, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Republicans said this week that while they are planning for Stevens to lose his re- election, Stevens is not likely to receive the kind of warm reception he received from colleagues following his arraignment earlier this year. Stevens was convicted of filing inaccurate financial disclosure forms to conceal thousands of dollars in gifts. Most observers predict the 84-year-old incumbent will lose to Democrat Mark Begich. Polls conducted before the conviction showed the race close.

Although McConnell is unlikely to make any decisions until he has met with his Conference, according to GOP aides, Stevens’ loss of ranking member status on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense are permanent. Stevens gave up those assignments voluntarily after his indictment. McConnell and his colleagues could decide to strip him of his committee seats, although that appears unlikely to happen until the GOP organizes for the 111th Congress early next year.

Republicans could also look to take other steps to pressure Stevens to leave, including barring him from the Conference’s weekly luncheons and generally turning a cold shoulder toward him in the normally congenial Senate chamber.

One Democratic aide argued that Stevens’ presence in the Senate will act as a constant reminder of the GOP’s recent ethical woes at a time when, if the election goes as expected, a depleted Conference looks to rebrand itself as reformers and watchdogs of the Democratic majority.

“Is Mitch McConnell really going to want to be out there with his arm around Stevens?” the Democratic aide asked.

But a Republican leadership aide downplayed Stevens’ likely impact on the GOP following the election. The public “caring stops Nov. 4 as soon as the races are called,” the aide said.

But other Republicans acknowledged that a months-long ethics investigation and subsequent expulsion vote would be deeply embarrassing for the GOP.

If the Ethics panel concluded that Stevens violated financial disclosure requirements, the committee’s disciplinary options range from recommending the full Senate vote to expel, censure or fine a lawmaker, or issuing a public or private letter of admonition.

The panel opted for the lesser sanction in 2002, the last time it found a sitting Senator in violation of rules governing the financial disclosure process.

The Ethics panel ruled in 2002 that then-Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) had violated gift rules and improperly filed his financial disclosure forms after accepting items from New Jersey businessman David Chang, a donor to his campaign.

Unlike Stevens, who was convicted in court last week, Torricelli was never charged by federal investigators, although the Justice Department requested the Senate probe after it closed its investigation.

Torricelli abandoned his re-election bid a few weeks before Election Day in 2002.

According to the Senate Historian’s office, the chamber has expelled 15 lawmakers since 1789. All of those cases centered on charges of supporting the Confederacy in the Civil War, with the exception of Democratic-Republican Sen. William Blount (Tenn.), who was expelled for treason and his role in a conspiracy to aid the British in conquering Spanish-controlled territory in Florida.

The Senate last considered whether to expel one of its Members — an action requiring a two-thirds vote of the chamber — in 1995, when the Ethics Committee recommended the chamber cast out Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) over allegations including sexual misconduct. The Oregon lawmaker resigned a month after the panel’s vote, sparing the Senate the expulsion vote.

McConnell was chairman of the Ethics Committee during the Packwood investigation and was ultimately tasked with going to the embattled lawmaker and convincing him it was time to leave.

The last time the Senate weighed expulsion for a Member found guilty of a crime occurred in 1982, following the conviction of then-Sen. Harrison Williams (D-N.J.), on charges including conspiracy and bribery in the ABSCAM scandal.

The Ethics panel recommended Williams be expelled, but he resigned before the full chamber could vote on the matter.

Should Stevens return to the Senate, however, he would be able to continue voting in the chamber despite his conviction since unlike the House, the Senate does not prohibit Members found guilty of a felony from participating in lawmaking.