WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sen. Larry Craig has agreed to temporarily step down as the leading Republican on several Senate committees as pressure mounts within his party for him to resign.
A police mug shot of Sen. Larry Craig after he was arrested at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport in June.
On Wednesday, three Republican lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, called on Craig to resign.
Their statements came a day after Craig made his first public statement about pleading guilty to a disorderly conduct charge relating to allegations the Idaho Republican solicited sex in a Minneapolis airport bathroom.
"I believe that he pleaded guilty, and he had the opportunity to plead innocent," said McCain, of Arizona. "So, I think he should resign. My opinion is that when you plead guilty to a crime you shouldn't serve."
"Sen. Craig pled guilty to a crime involving conduct unbecoming a senator. He should resign," said Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.
Republican Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan added: "The voters of Idaho elected Sen. Craig to represent their state and will decide his future in 2008 should he fail to resign.
"However, he also represents the Republican party, and I believe he should step down, as his conduct throughout this matter has been inappropriate for a U.S. senator."
Craig serves on the Veterans' Affairs Committee, Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, and Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests.
A statement from the Republican leadership said, "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."
On Tuesday the leadership called for an Ethics Committee investigation of Craig's June 11 arrest and August 8 guilty plea, which came to light in Monday's Roll Call newspaper.
On Wednesday a reporter from the Idaho Statesman defended the paper's coverage of Craig, responding to the senator's accusation that the publication conducted a "witch hunt."
"We have been careful, cautious throughout, courteous from the start," said Dan Popkey, the reporter.
Popkey said he worked on the story for five months and conducted 300 interviews with people who know Craig, including some who went to college with him and some who work with him in the Senate.
The Statesman was compelled to publish the results of its investigation when news of Craig's guilty plea came out, Popkey said.
Asked whether the paper has photographs, video or other evidence of Craig's alleged public homosexual activity, Popkey said, "We have no hard evidence."
The White House also is expressing disappointment with Craig's situation.
"We're disappointed in what's going on. It's a matter for the senator and the Senate Republican leadership to address," deputy White House press secretary Scott Stanzel said.
"We hope that it will be resolved quickly, as that would be in the best interests of the Senate and the people of Idaho," Stanzel said.
State GOP officials in Idaho are standing by Craig in their public comments, but some privately say the senator is ruined.
One conservative leader, though, was unequivocal:
"I believe he should resign because I believe character is an extremely important qualification for public service," said Bryan Fischer of the Idaho Values Alliance. "And I believe the senator, by his own admission, has acknowledged that he has fallen short of the standard that we should expect from public servants."
Likewise, the head of a conservative advocacy group in Washington had strong words for Craig:
"Sen. Craig admittedly engaged in illegal activity that brings serious disrepute to the public office he holds," Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said Wednesday. "He should seriously consider resigning."
Craig's term ends next year; the 62-year-old lawmaker has not announced whether he will seek re-election.
In Washington, Republican colleagues generally are being cautious in their statements, taking a wait and see approach.
However, Senate GOP leaders called Tuesday for an Ethics Committee investigation of the Idaho Republican's June arrest at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in Minnesota.
"He's disappointed the American people," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, for whose presidential campaign Craig was a Senate liaison, said Tuesday night on CNBC. Craig has stepped down from his role in the campaign.
While campaigning in Iowa, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said Wednesday that Craig has "a lot of 'splainin' to do."
"It's certainly not a good thing," said Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor. "And I think the guilty plea is what makes it a little bit dicey for him. If he believed it was an innocent misunderstanding, then I think most Americans would say that you fight it, you don't just roll over and plead guilty."
Craig on Tuesday said he had "overreacted and made a poor decision" in pleading guilty to disorderly conduct after his arrest. Watch what regular folks have to say about Craig »
In his first public statement on the arrest, the lawmaker said he did nothing "inappropriate."
"Let me be clear: I am not gay and never have been," said Craig, who has aligned himself with conservative groups who oppose gay rights.
With his wife, Suzanne, by his side, Craig said he was the victim of a "witch hunt" conducted by the Idaho Statesman.
"In pleading guilty, I overreacted in Minneapolis because of the stress of the Idaho Statesman's investigation and the rumors it has fueled around Idaho," he said. "Again, that overreaction was a mistake, and I apologize for my misjudgment."
He added: "I should not have kept this arrest to myself and should have told my family and friends about it. I wasn't eager to share this failure, but I should have done so anyway."
He also said he has hired an attorney to advise him on how to proceed with the criminal case.
Since news of his arrest broke, Craig appears to be in deep political trouble.
"I think it's very damaging. There is a lot of smoke here, and the truth is that in politics, smoke is as deadly as the fire sometimes," said Jennifer Duffy, editor of The Cook Political Report.
The general sentiment among Craig's fellow Idaho Republicans who talked to CNN's Dana Bash in Boise was that Craig's explanation is not credible.
One influential Republican who has known the senator for decades said he watched Craig's statement with a group of party "movers and shakers," and they concluded that the lawmaker's political career is over.
An aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said one factor in the decision for an Ethics Committee review was the arresting officer's assertion that Craig produced a business card identifying himself as a U.S. senator after his arrest. Craig allegedly said, "What do you think about that?"
Romney, in his CNBC interview, apparently wasn't buying Craig's story.
"It reminds us that people who are elected to public office continue to disappoint," Romney said. "And they somehow think that if they vote the right way on issues of significance or they can speak a good game that we'll just forgive and forget."
In recent years Craig's voting record has earned him top ratings from social conservative groups.
He has supported a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. He also has voted to deny federal recognition of same-sex marriages and against including gays in anti-discrimination laws.
The police officer who arrested him June 11 said Craig peered through a crack in a restroom stall door for two minutes and made gestures suggesting to the officer he wanted to engage in "lewd conduct."
On Wednesday, an airport employee who asked to remain anonymous told CNN that police had made at least 40 similar arrests since May, when authorities began monitoring restrooms after complaints of inappropriate behavior.
Craig said the officer misinterpreted his actions.
Craig pleaded guilty August 8 to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge, according to Minnesota criminal records.
Craig, Idaho's senior senator, is married with three grown children and nine grandchildren. A former rancher, he was first elected to the Senate in 1990 after serving a decade in the House of Representatives.
Last fall, Craig's office publicly denied assertions by Internet blogger Mike Rogers that the senator is gay. Craig's office dismissed speculation about the senator's sexuality as "completely ridiculous." E-mail to a friend
CNN's Dana Bash, Candy Crowley, Jessica Yellin and Chris Welch contributed to this report.
Copyright 2007 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.
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