WASHINGTON - If Republicans in the U.S. Senate ever secretly hoped for one of their own to lose an election, it might be Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who's in a cliffhanger of a race to keep his seat with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.
On Tuesday, Stevens, who was convicted on corruption charges last month, will return to the Senate for what may be the most uncomfortable vote of not only his career, but that of his fellow Republican senators. They'll be asked to decide in a secret, behind-closed-doors vote, whether to oust the 40-year veteran senator from the Senate's Republican conference, stripping him of his committee assignments and ending his vote on party matters.
Stevens, who does not lose his right to vote as a U.S. senator on Tuesday, has already been forced by Republican rules to step down as the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee and on an Appropriations subcommittee.
It will be a frosty return to the Senate for Stevens, who during the congressional recess was convicted in federal court here of lying on his financial disclosure forms and now appears in danger of losing his seat to Begich. The vote comes on a particularly awkward date as well: It's Stevens' 85th birthday.
Yet many of his Republican colleagues returning for the brief lame-duck session say they are uncomfortable with the thought of a convicted felon serving in their midst, given the losses the GOP has posted in the past two elections.
"I think it would be very difficult, as a convicted felon, that he should remain in the conference," Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla. said last week. "The Republican Party needs to send a signal that we are at a moment in time where we are not to tolerate that. ... I think a convicted felon is pretty inconsistent with serving in the U.S. Senate."
Martinez added that he needs to hear from Stevens first before he decides how he would vote on the proposal, brought by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.
DeMint's office has characterized the vote on Stevens as a way of cleaning Republican house of any scandalous taint before the 111th Congress begins in January. They expect it to pass, said DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton. It's the only chance such a vote has to pass, since after this week, Congress is unlikely to return until the new session begins with the Jan. 6 swearing-in of new members.
"This is saying the Republican Party demands a high standard of ethics from its members," Denton said.
While the vote is on Tuesday's agenda for 9:30 a.m., it's not clear whether it will even take place. Many Republican senators say they would rather wait for the final election results so they don't have to cast an uncomfortable vote on whether Stevens should stay in their conference.
"The latest report I saw is that Begich is pulling ahead," making it a moot point, said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. But then he added: "Look, we have due process rights. Until a person has been exhausted all of them, we should reserve judgment till he's had full due process. We need to wait to see the outcome of the election as well as due process."
Martinez added that he is "hopeful that the election will resolve this perhaps, and we won't have to deal with it."
As it stands now, Begich leads with just over 1,000 votes. That number is expected to shift Tuesday, when elections officials finish counting absentee votes in Juneau, Fairbanks and Anchorage that will likely determine the final outcome of the vote.
Stevens' spokesman Aaron Saunders said the senator had no comment on the conference vote.
If Stevens were to lose his spot in the conference and also lose his seat to Begich, the ouster would have little practical effect, since the lame duck session is only a week and Stevens would be free to participate in any floor votes in the Senate in his few remaining days there.
If he keeps his seat, but his fellow Republicans vote to kick him out of the conference, it's a signal that the Senate as a whole would be willing to expel him from the Senate when they return next year.
It also is possible that senators could table the vote Tuesday - or decide not to vote at all. Unlike votes on legislation, the potential ouster is an internal political matter handled behind closed doors, so even close advisers to senators aren't privy to the machinations.
The outcome would be determined by a majority of Stevens' 42 fellow Republicans, including two newly elected members.
Because it's a secret ballot, there also would be no telling how individual senators voted, if they do indeed vote. Stevens, who has several deep friendships in the Senate but also has angered many of his colleagues over the years with his vindictive nature and poor temper, may fare poorly in a secret vote.
Stevens has a number of senators in his corner, chiefly his fellow Alaskan, Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Others include Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who testified for Stevens as a character witness during his corruption trial and is likely to back him again. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, campaigned for his re-election and is unlikely to press for his ouster. And while Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, showed up to support Stevens in court during his trial, he is retiring and doesn't have a vote on the future of the Senate GOP caucus.
But there also is a long list of Republican senators who asked him to step down after his conviction and are inclined to vote to remove Stevens from the caucus. Those who called for him to step down when he was convicted include Republican presidential candidate John McCain and DeMint's fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Lindsey Graham.
The top Republican in the Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said after Stevens was convicted that he should step down, but has been silent on whether he believes he should stay in the GOP caucus. Other Senate Republican leaders have indicated they would vote to remove him from the conference, including Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, who headed up the committee charged with re-electing Republicans to the Senate.
The two Republican senators whose re-election bids also remain undecided - Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia - also have either called on him to step down or leave the Republican conference.
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