WASHINGTON -- As politicians in Washington called for his resignation, Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican, said he has retained a lawyer to examine his case, suggesting that he might attempt to withdraw his guilty plea. That might be possible in some circumstances, legal experts say, but he would risk having more serious charges reinstated and the public exposure of other details of the restroom incident that has imperiled his congressional career.
Ordinarily, Minnesota law allows defendants to withdraw plea agreements in limited situations where there has been "manifest injustice." Courts have interpreted that narrowly - where prosecutors have not upheld their end of a plea bargain, for example, or where a defendant was denied access to a lawyer. Craig waived his right to a lawyer, and the $500 fine he paid for disorderly conduct was typical for a first-time offender.
In practice, judges have discretion in individual cases. Craig could argue that the state would have little to lose by allowing him to rescind the deal, which he now says was a mistake, because prosecutors could still go to court with the testimony of the undercover policeman involved in the sting that resulted in his arrest.
He also could argue that he never appeared before a judge - he worked out the deal in correspondence with Minnesota prosecutors after he returned to Washington - and did not have the opportunity to have all of his rights explained to him.
Some lawyers said that some judges would oblige any effort to reopen the case, given that Craig now claims that he didn't do anything wrong.
"If I was the judge, I would be more than happy to allow him to come back and explain himself," said Eric Newmark, a Minneapolis criminal defense lawyer who practices in the Hennepin County district court where Craig was convicted. "It is a pretty serious thing to go into court, swear to tell the truth, say what you did, and then [later] tell the media that you didn't do it."
The downside of doing that would be the reinstatement of a more serious charge against him that was dropped as part of the plea agreement. That charge - invasion of privacy linked to his allegedly peeking through a bathroom stall door - is punishable by up to a year in jail. At a public trial, more embarrassing facts could come out, lawyers said.
Several lawyers in Minnesota said Craig could have avoided the embarrassment of having to admit committing a crime if he had hired a lawyer in the first place. Minnesota, like many states, has special programs that allow first-time offenders to have charges against them dropped after a year if they do not engage in any further misconduct.
"Very likely, a lawyer would have gotten one of those dispositions ... and Craig could have said, 'I never admitted I did anything wrong,' " said Stephen Simon, a professor at the University of Minnesota law school.
Meanwhile, in Washington, fellow Republicans in Congress called for Craig to resign, and party leaders pushed him unceremoniously out of senior committee posts yesterday.
Craig "represents the Republican Party," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the first in a steadily lengthening list of GOP members of Congress to urge a resignation.
Craig's spokesman declined to comment. "They have a right to express themselves," said Sidney Smith. He said he had heard no discussion of a possible resignation.
McCain spoke out in an interview with CNN. "My opinion is that when you plead guilty to a crime, you shouldn't serve. That's not a moral stand. That's not a holier-than-thou. It's just a factual situation."
Coleman said in a written statement, "Senator Craig pled guilty to a crime involving conduct unbecoming a senator."
For a second consecutive day, GOP Senate leaders stepped in, issuing a statement that said Craig had agreed to temporarily give up his posts on important committees, such as the Veterans Affairs Committee.
"This is not a decision we take lightly, but we believe this is in the best interest of the Senate until this situation is resolved by the ethics committee," said the statement, issued in the name of Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the party leader, and others.
In Craig's home state, Republican Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter said his longtime friend "is an honorable man, and I am confident that Larry Craig will do what is best for him and his family and the state of Idaho."
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.