WASHINGTON - Sen. Ted Stevens today returned to the U.S. Senate a convicted felon but escaped at least one verdict: exile by his fellow Republicans.
His Republican Senate colleagues decided to postpone a vote on whether to keep Stevens in their GOP conference, saying they'll wait until after his Senate race in Alaska is resolved.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who pressed for Stevens' ouster from the conference, said he would not ask fellow Republicans to vote on his motion until election officials finish counting ballots in Alaska. Stevens on Tuesday trailed Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich by 2,374 votes as the Alaska Division of Elections continued counting today.
Few Republican senators seemed willing to act Tuesday, when the decision was just hours away from being decided by Alaska voters.
"What we decided is there's nothing for us to decide until we know if he's elected or not," said the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
DeMint's motion would have stripped Stevens, a 40-year Senate veteran, of his committee assignments. It also would keep him from voting on internal Republican matters. However, Stevens would have remained a member of the Senate and retained his ability to vote on legislation. The proposal is different from expulsion, which would require a two-thirds vote of the entire Senate.
Stevens told reporters after the Senate Republican conference met that he was prepared to make a case for remaining in the conference and that he "still has faith I'm going to win the election."
He also said that the past several months -- beginning with his indictment in June, his trial, and his re-election campaign -- have been hard on him.
"I haven't had a night's sleep for almost four months," Stevens, who turns 85 today, told the dozens of reporters and photographers who thronged around him as he walked to and from his office and the Republican meeting.
"I've been living about three different lives and it's hard to even answer your questions properly," he said, adding, "I wouldn't wish what I've been through on anyone, (even) my worst enemy."
Stevens was found guilty Oct. 27 in federal court on seven counts of failing to report on his Senate financial disclosure forms more than $250,000 in gifts, including renovations that double his home in size.
Many senators have expressed reservations about Stevens' continued presence in the Senate in light of his convictions. A number of Republicans and Democrats, including presidential candidate John McCain, R-Ariz., and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, asked Stevens to step down.
DeMint said he called for Stevens' ouster from the conference as a sign that Republicans take seriously their losses in recent elections and want to start the next session of Congress in January with a clean slate, free of the taint of corruption.
But other senators also said they would rather that the voters of Alaska speak before they cast a vote to kick Stevens out of the conference. They included some of Stevens' oldest Senate colleagues: Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
"I don't think the matter's right; we'll see what happens in the election," Specter said, adding that DeMint's proposal "would be a good vote to delay permanently."
Stevens also had the support of his fellow Alaska Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was prepared Tuesday to speak on his behalf in front of her GOP colleagues.
Murkowski said that she called DeMint Monday and told him that she thought it was inappropriate to act before the vote was final.
DeMint told her it was a "message he thought was important to be sent." But she said she told DeMint that if the outcome of the election is in Stevens' favor and his fellow Republicans stripped him of his committee assignments, it would be a disservice to the people of Alaska.
"That to me did not seem reasonable," Murkowski said. "It was a not an approach I supported in any way...and I said it was premature, it's unnecessary and just shouldn't be done."
DeMint said Tuesday it was "clear there are sufficient votes to pass the resolution regarding Senator Stevens," but that the timing was in question.
"Some who support the resolution believe we should address this after the results of his election are confirmed in Alaska," he said. "For this reason, I will ask the conference to postpone the vote on Senator Stevens until Thursday."
His motion was overridden by one introduced by Hatch, who also testified as a character witness in Stevens' criminal trial last month. Hatch suggested that his colleagues table the vote indefinitely, until the election is resolved.