Las Vegas Sun

February 25, 2024

The Senator’s Scandal:

Back in Washington, Ensign received warmly

But he can’t save tourism bill he co-authored as all other Republicans but one vote no


Lauren Victoria Burke / associated press

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., speaks with reporters on his way to a vote Monday in Washington. Ensign’s tourism bill failed to advance on a 53-34 vote along party lines.

Ensign in Washington

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., is seen talking with reporters on his way to a vote on Monday, June 22, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Launch slideshow »

Ensign Admits Affair

U.S. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., acknowledged an extramarital affair with a campaign staff member Tuesday afternoon at the Lloyd George Federal Building in Las Vegas.

Sen. John Ensign admits affair

Sen. John Ensign holds a press conference announcing his affair with a staff member at the Lloyd George Federal Building in Las Vegas on Tuesday. Launch slideshow »

Audio Clip

  • Sen. John Ensign read a statement about his extramarital affair with a member of his campaign staff at a press conference on Tuesday, June 16, 2009.

Beyond the Sun

A week after admitting an affair with a campaign aide, Republican Sen. John Ensign returned to the capital Monday, receiving handshakes from colleagues but unable to salvage a bill he had co-authored to help the tourism industry.

It was Ensign’s first public appearance since last Tuesday, when he disclosed the eight-month affair. Since then Ensign, one of Nevada’s most-liked elected officials, has resigned his No. 4 GOP Senate leadership post and watched his popularity plummet.

On Monday Ensign, wearing a dark suit and bold red tie, arrived on the Senate floor smiling and seemingly upbeat. He accepted a few half-hugs and shook hands with Democratic Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Chuck Schumer of New York, among others.

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who shares a house with Ensign and others, stood by Ensign’s side.

Whether the once-rising party leader could have marshaled support to overcome the bipartisan warfare that erupted over the tourism bill in the Senate is hard to measure.

The bill, which called for a $10 charge on visa applicants to fund a new tourism agency, had broad political support from 46 Republicans and Democrats.

But it became tangled with amendments and failed to advance on a party-line vote, 53-34. Only two Republicans — Ensign and Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, who shepherded the bill through the floor in Ensign’s absence — voted yes.

All the Democrats present voted for the bill but eight Democrats were absent, leaving Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — who had co-authored the bill with Ensign — without enough votes to cross the 60-vote threshold.

Reid switched his vote at the end so he can bring it back in the future.

The bill would have benefited Nevada and other tourism states by establishing an office to promote the U.S. abroad and try to recapture business lost after Sept. 11, 2001.

Geoff Freeman, a senior vice president of the U.S. Travel Association, said he couldn’t say whether Ensign’s absence over the past week made a difference in the bill’s fate.

Nevada Democrats pounced on Ensign’s troubles, with the state party saying in a statement that “recent distractions of his personal life are affecting John Ensign’s ability to do his job for Nevadans in Washington.”

Democrats are already eyeing Ensign’s seat.

The senator, who just last month generated a favorable opinion among 53 percent of Nevada’s voters, now tallies 39 percent, according to a weekend poll published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Those who have an unfavorable view of the senator doubled.

The poll showed voters split on whether they would reelect him in 2012, and Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley has indicated she might run against him, a notion not dispelled Monday.

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote Monday that Ensign’s actions may “imperil” his political future.

And one Republican strategist, Mark McKinnon, a moderate former Bush administration adviser, posted on The Daily Beast that Ensign should resign.

Just months before Ensign began the affair with his then-campaign aide, Cynthia Hampton, in December 2007, he told the Associated Press that he would resign if he found himself in a situation similar to that of his colleague, the former Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho. Craig had been arrested in an airport men’s restroom sting.

“I wouldn’t put myself, hopefully, in that kind of a position ... but if I was in a position like that, I think that’s what I would do,” Ensign told the Associated Press at the time.

Yet the clamor for Ensign to step aside is running into the realities of Nevada and Washington politics.

In the Review-Journal poll released Sunday, 62 percent of Nevada voters said Ensign should not resign.

In Washington on Monday, Republicans dismissed resignation talk, saying the 2012 election was many political years away. They note that Ensign’s approval ratings remain higher, though only slightly, than Reid’s.

Many Republicans believe Ensign can recover, even as they contend there remain several unanswered questions about his affair.

Ensign claims that over the past month the attorney for the woman’s husband, Doug Hampton, demanded exorbitant amounts of money for his client — a statement that falls short of the blackmail claim initially floated to some media outlets.

The FBI and Metro Police in Las Vegas say they are not investigating an extortion case.

Ensign’s office has declined to say how much money was sought or whether the senator gave the couple any money. His office has also declined to say whether the senator went to the authorities.

Legal scholars have told the Sun the difference between extortion and a lawyer simply playing hardball in demanding sums for a client depends on the details of the conversations and the jurisdiction where they occurred.

Ensign has said he went public with the affair because Doug Hampton, a former top aide in the senator’s office during the time of the affair, was taking the story to the media.

Last week the Sun obtained a letter written by Doug Hampton to Fox News, pleading with the network to conduct an investigation into the senator’s “relentless pursuit” of his wife. He said he wanted “restitution.”

Fox News did not air a story, saying initially that the man did not sound credible and that after Ensign acknowledged the affair it let the story slip away.

Both Fox and Ensign have said the news station did not tip off the senator to the husband’s letter. Ensign hasn’t said how he knew the husband was approaching the media.

A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said Monday it is calling for an investigation of activity surrounding the affair. It said it expects to file the complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee by midweek.

The organization’s executive director, Melanie Sloan, told the Sun last week that questions remain about the couple’s dismissal, and the money used to pay their salary and any possible severance.

Cynthia Hampton’s pay doubled during the time of the affair, an increase Ensign’s office said was in line with her added duties with his campaign committees. Doug Hampton’s extra pay during his final month was for accrued vacation time, the senator’s office said.

The Hamptons left the senator’s employment in May 2008, but the circumstances remain unclear. The affair ended in August.

At Ensign’s office Monday, the door was open and aides were working at their desks but the office declined to share the senator’s schedule. Reporters staked out the hallway.

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