Ensign Returns, Quietly

Senator Addresses GOP Colleagues

Posted June 23, 2009 at 6:36pm

Beleaguered Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) appears to be following a path into the shadows traveled by many scandal-plagued lawmakers before him — by hiding from the press, refusing to talk, and hoping that time will push the whole episode into the background.

His apology to fellow Republicans was warmly received Tuesday, but Ensign took pains to avoid more public scrutiny following his revelation last week that he had an affair with a former campaign aide and that the woman’s husband sought money from him.

He slipped in and out of the Republicans’ weekly luncheon, presumably through a back staircase, without speaking to a throng of waiting reporters, including those with his hometown newspapers. And his office issued a terse statement about what went on in the meeting, where his two-minute mea culpa for having the affair and causing a distraction for the party was met with polite applause.

“He spoke to his colleagues and offered an apology that was well received and appropriate. Senators have been very gracious,— Ensign spokesman Tory Mazzola said in a statement.

Ensign apparently told colleagues that he had become a different person during the affair, a person he was not proud of.

Though no one in the Senate Republican Conference appears to have told Ensign to lay low and let the scandal run its course, Republicans said that’s clearly what is expected of him.

“This is where some of the unspoken rules of the Senate come into play, as well as common-sense politics,— one senior Senate GOP aide said.

Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Thune (S.D.) — who is poised to replace Ensign on Thursday as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee — indicated that Ensign is likely to throw himself into smaller, more parochial concerns, rather than continue trying to be a key voice of the GOP minority leadership.

“I’ll trust his judgment with regard to what he decides to do in terms of his profile,— Thune said. “But I think he’ll be a very active Senator on his committees, and I think he’ll be working very hard on legislation that’s good for the state of Nevada.—

Of course, keeping a low profile will only work if Ensign can avoid any more revelations about the affair with his former campaign treasurer, Cynthia Hampton.

Questions remain about what Ensign has alleged was an effort to obtain money by Doug Hampton, Cynthia’s husband and Ensign’s former administrative assistant.

[IMGCAP(1)]The matter could be the subject of a Senate Ethics Committee inquiry, if the panel decides to look into the circumstances surrounding how both Hamptons left Ensign’s office. Both Doug and Cynthia Hampton left Ensign’s employ in April 2008, but the affair, according to Ensign, ended in August of that year.

Like Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and Roland Burris (D-Ill.), Ensign could hunker down and try to avoid scrutiny. For Burris, the controversy surrounding his appointment by a governor accused of trying to sell the Senate seat of President Barack Obama continues to rear its head every now and then. However, Burris has largely ridden out the worst of the media frenzy that surrounded him earlier this year.

In Vitter’s case, the stain that accompanied the 2007 reports of his relationship with a prostitute has faded to the point where he has become an influential member of the minority. He often takes high-profile roles on the Senate floor in trying to block the Senate Democratic agenda.

That was a role Ensign was already cultivating before he joined the leadership ranks. But the senior Senate GOP aide said it is unclear whether Ensign can make a comeback akin to Vitter’s.

“I don’t know how anyone can speculate,— the aide said. “There are a lot of unknowns here.—

Still, Ensign’s GOP colleagues appeared magnanimous about Ensign’s apology, saying his tone was serious, humble and somber as he spoke to them.

“He expressed himself sincerely and candidly,— Sen. Mel Martinez (Fla.) said. “It’s time to move on, and we wish him the best.—

Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) said Republican Senators appreciated Ensign’s courage in standing up before the Conference on Tuesday.

“Today I think he did what he needed to do with us,— Corker said, adding that Ensign’s decision to speak was “not a flippant thing.—

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) kept his remarks brief, offering just one sentence on the matter surrounding his former lieutenant in the leadership ranks.

“Sen. Ensign obviously can speak for himself,— McConnell said, providing few details of the lunchtime address. “But he spoke to our Conference, apologized and said he’s going to do his job.—

Though he was not present for Ensign’s mea culpa, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said his friendship with Ensign — which blossomed after the two ran against each other in a tough 1998 race that Reid won — is unchanged.

“Everyone knows that Sen. Ensign and I had a very difficult race back in 1998,— Reid said.

“We have become friends since then,— Reid added. “I am concerned about his family, and I hope he works through this.—