ELIZABETHTOWN — Republican U.S. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell said Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens should quit now or risk a swift expulsion since being convicted Monday on corruption charges.
"I think he should resign immediately," McConnell, Kentucky's senior senator, told the Herald-Leader Tuesday night after a Hardin County GOP rally. "If he did not do that ... there is a 100 percent certainty that he would be expelled from the Senate."
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A jury found Stevens, 84, and the longest serving Republican in Senate history, guilty on seven charges of lying on his official financial disclosure forms to hide gifts and more than $250,000 in home improvements paid for by an oil executive.
Several other key Republicans, including presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, called for Stevens to step down now, even before Stevens faces the verdict of Alaska voters on Election Day. Stevens has been locked in a tight campaign with Democrat Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage, since he was first charged in July.
If Stevens wins, then steps down, a special election would replace him.
"If a resignation is going to happen, the nation gains nothing by having it happen before the election," said Mead Treadwell, an Alaska Republican and longtime Stevens supporter who is among the state's largest McCain donors, according to The Associated Press.
Oregon Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, who like Stevens is in a tight race for re-election, and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., echoed that call, the AP reported.
"Service in the Senate demands the highest ethical standards," Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said Tuesday. "Unfortunately, his conviction proved that he has failed to meet those standards and he should resign immediately."
They were joined by Maine Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, who said that "stepping down would be the right thing to do."
Stevens has given no indication he's even considering resignation. His spokesman did not return AP's messages seeking comment Tuesday. Instead, Stevens released news that the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and a retired Air Force officer had endorsed him.
Democrats, who now hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate, have targeted Stevens' seat as part of their bid to build a filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama also said Tuesday that Stevens should vacate his Senate seat.
Stevens, who was first elected to the Senate in 1968, has vowed to appeal the conviction and "fight this unjust verdict."
But McConnell, who is in his own tough re-election fight, said that regardless of the outcome of the election, Stevens won't be serving in the Senate much longer.
"The Senate would have zero tolerance for the continued service of a convicted felon," McConnell said.
Earlier Tuesday, McConnell's Senate office dispatched a statement saying Stevens, after being found guilty, "must face the consequences of those actions" and "will be held accountable so the public trust can be restored," although it didn't outline specific consequences.
It wasn't until answering questions after his last stop Tuesday on his re-election bus tour through western and west-central Kentucky did McConnell call for Stevens to resign before the Senate took its action.
McConnell pointed to the Senate ethics committee process that would automatically review the case and could recommend expulsion. McConnell led that process in 1995 when Oregon Republican Sen. Bob Packwood faced allegations of personal and official misconduct.
"If someone were convicted of a felony, they would be expelled from the Senate," McConnell said. "I am the guy who chaired the ethics committee when we expelled Packwood from the Senate. I'm the one who made the motion to expel Packwood from the Senate."
Packwood resigned after the ethics committee voted unanimously to expel him for, as McConnell called at the time, "a habitual pattern of aggressive, blatantly sexual advances" toward women on his staff.
McConnell added that Packwood was forced out "for less offense than" what Stevens now faces.
After Stevens was first charged this summer, McConnell said he would reserve judgment until after the trial. He described the issue as one for Alaska voters and not one that might become radioactive for other Republicans.
Tuesday, McConnell dismissed any suggestion that Stevens' problems would be a big issue in his own re-election race. "It is (an issue) in Alaska," he said to end the brief interview.
During an afternoon campaign stop in Greensburg, McConnell's Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford called for McConnell to lead the charge to oust Stevens.
"I think as the leader he should be the one instigating that," Lunsford told the Herald-Leader.
Lunsford said Stevens' conviction was "another example of business as usual" for a Congress that has experienced a recent spate of lawmakers with ethical problems, ranging from Republican U.S. Rep. Duke Cunningham of California, who is serving an eight-year prison sentence for a host of corruption charges, to Democratic U.S. Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana, was indicted last year on charges of accepting bribes.
Lunsford said he didn't have a sense of what effect, if any, the Stevens case might have in the Kentucky U.S. Senate race.
"I do believe this: I believe it's a clear indication that the system Mitch McConnell is protecting doesn't work," Lunsford said.
Lunsford has built his campaign around the concept of change from the status quo and has attempted to link McConnell with President Bush, particularly on economic policies.
Tuesday, in Greensburg, Lunsford pledged to be an independent voice in the Senate, a counter message to McConnell, who has said frequently in recent days that any freshman Democratic senator would have to fall in line behind Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
"I'm not going up there to be anybody's guaranteed vote," a defiant Lunsford told the two dozen Democrats who showed up for Lunsford's stop at the historic Old Green County Courthouse. "I'm going up there to be your vote."
McConnell has been contrasting his seniority and leadership position with what would be Lunsford's "rookie" status.
In Elizabethtown, McConnell told 100 GOP activists who braved the crisp late fall air to attend the rally that Senate leaders even assign the desks in the chamber based on seniority.
"So he'll be way back in the back of the room," McConnell said of Lunsford. "His only responsibility every day will be to march down the middle of the aisle and salute Harry Reid and ask how to vote."