WASHINGTON -- On what may well be the worst weekend of his professional life, Ted Stevens faces only bleak prospects: maybe losing the U.S. Senate seat he has held for 40 years, and a secret vote by his colleagues on whether to oust him from the Senate's Republican conference.
Ejection from the Republican conference means losing his committee assignments and his vote on party matters.
Following his felony convictions in federal court before the election, Stevens was forced to step down as the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee and on an Appropriations subcommittee. He now appears in danger of losing his seat to Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich
The conference meeting is currently scheduled for Tuesday, the day after Congress returns from its elections recess. While the vote is on the agenda for 9:30 a.m., it's not clear whether it will 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."
Still, many of Stevens' Republican colleagues 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.
Martinez said that he is "hopeful that the election will resolve this perhaps, and we won't have to deal with it."
DeMint's office has characterized a 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, because 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.
As it stands now, Begich leads by a margin of 1,022 votes. Alaska elections officials will finish counting votes late in the day on Tuesday, well into the evening in Washington, with most of the remaining absentee and questioned ballots coming from areas that have previously favored Begich.
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, an official conference ouster would have little practical effect. The lame duck session is only a week long, and Stevens would be free to participate in any floor votes in the Senate in his few remaining days there.
If he wins re-election, 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 when they return next year.
Because the conference ballot is secret, there would be no telling how individual senators voted. Stevens has close friends in the Senate but he also has angered some of his colleagues over the years with his hot temper and forceful personality.
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 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.