WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats are breathing a heavy sigh of relief today, and Senate Republicans are gnashing their teeth, over the decision of the retiring U.S. attorney in New York not to bring criminal charges against Democratic Sen. Bob Torricelli of New Jersey for alleged acceptance of an illegal gift.
The reason is that the decision shoots a huge hole through the Republicans' hopes of defeating Mr. Torricelli for re-election in November and possibly regaining control of the Senate they lost last year when GOP Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont jumped ship to become an independent.
The Democratic-appointed attorney, Mary Jo White, gave no details on how she reached the decision after a three-year investigation into relations between Mr. Torricelli and businessman David Chang, a one-time "friend" of rather remarkable generosity to the well-placed senator.
Ms. White says she will refer the results of her look into the Chang-Torricelli friendship, long since gone sour, to the Senate Ethics Committee.
Considering that group's track record for blowing whistles on senatorial colleagues, the gesture will probably be dropping the matter down a bottomless pit.
The composition of the committee - three Republicans and three Democrats, with a majority required for action - virtually assures that nothing much will come of the referral, except perhaps a gentlemanly slap on Mr. Torricelli's wrist.
Although he has greeted Ms. White's decision as vindication, the Republicans have no intention of giving Mr. Torricelli a free ride in his re-election bid. Dan Allen, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, says "non-indictment is by no means ethical or political acquittal."
The problem for the Republicans, however, is that even before the decision letting Mr. Torricelli off the hook, the most prominent GOP prospects to oppose him were running away. Former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, now director of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and popular former Gov. Tom Kean both said they wanted no part of it.
One reason could be that the incumbent senator, who last year finished a highly successful term as the chief fund-raiser for fellow Democratic senators, is said to have a re-election kitty of his own in excess of $3 million.
Another could be his combative personality and style, which have earned him the nickname "The Torch" within his own party, and especially back home in New Jersey, where he has burned more than a few bridges.
The only declared Republican challenger is James Trefinger, executive of Essex County (Newark), who ran a poor third in the 2000 Republican primary for the Senate in the race ultimately won by Democrat Jon Corzine.
A state senator from South Jersey, Diane Allen, is among several others said to be considering the race.
A nonpartisan who is dismayed at the failure to indict Mr. Torricelli is Charles Lewis, head of the Center for Public Integrity here, a longtime bird dog on campaign finance corruption. Citing FBI confirmations of Mr. Chang's generosity to Mr. Torricelli, Mr. Lewis says: "The tawdry has become commonplace in this city. We've come to accept smarminess and sleaziness when private interests try to get public favors from elected officials."
The Senate Ethics Committee, Mr. Lewis says, "is basically a joke." The only possibility for a real congressional follow-up to the U.S. attorney's investigation, he says, might be an effort by Republican Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee. But Mr. Burton's reputation for witch-hunting diminishes his own credibility, and even he is not considered likely to take on an investigation of someone in "the other body."
As for the Justice Department under Republican Attorney General John Ashcroft, further investigation of Mr. Torricelli would draw allegations of partisanship, and Mr. Ashcroft has enough political criticism on his plate already. He recused himself from the case while Ms. White was handling it on grounds of conflict of interest, because Mr. Torricelli raised a bundle of campaign funds to defeat the former Missouri senator in his failed bid for re-election in November 2000.
A difficult element in all this, even Mr. Lewis acknowledges, is that Mr. Chang proved himself to be such an unreliable witness, accused even by the prosecutors of telling whoppers. So the chances are strong that Mr. Torricelli is home free, with his re-election prospects rosy after all the allegations of bribe-taking against him.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.