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Sen. Stevens' Colleagues Express Shock, Sympathy

DAVID WELNA: I'm David Welna at the U.S. Capitol. It was a day of earthquakes yesterday - a terrestrial one in Los Angeles; a political house-rumbler here. It's just not that often that a sitting senator gets indicted. That's happened to only 11 in Senate history - nine of them Republicans.

Ted Stevens, the latest, is also the longest-serving Senate Republican ever, and in this club of 100, Stevens has allies on both sides of the aisle. One of them is Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson.

Senator BEN NELSON (Democrat, Nebraska): I don't have any comment. Senator Stevens is a friend of mine.

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WELNA: Republican senators were lunching at their campaign headquarters when they got the news of their colleague's indictment. Utah's Orrin Hatch was there.

Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): I think everybody felt badly about it. Certainly I do.

WELNA: Senate Democrats were also meeting for their weekly luncheon when the Justice Department announced the charges. They, too, reacted with expressions of sympathy rather than outrage. Here's Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski.

Senator BARBARA MIKULSKI (Democrat, Maryland): It's a sad day for the Senate, a terrible day for Senator Stevens, and he's entitled to his day in court.

WELNA: Alaska's other Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski, declared herself absolutely shocked and very saddened.

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Senator LISA MURKOWSKI (Republican, Alaska): Because Ted Stevens is probably, again, an incredible leader for the state, an incredibly honorable man, a guy who has given his whole life to the state of Alaska. And so to see the allegations today is just very shocking.

WELNA: Even Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, who's repeatedly clashed with Stevens, was unusually tight-lipped.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): I'm feeling that now is not a good time for me to make a comment on it.

WELNA: Coburn and Stevens had an epic fight on the Senate floor three years ago, when Coburn tried to pass a measure taking money from what he called a bridge to nowhere in Alaska. Stevens, at the time, threatened to resign if that measure passed, which it didn't.

Senator TED STEVENS (Republican, Alaska): I planned to warn the Senate, if you want a wounded bull on this floor of the Senate, pass this amendment.

WELNA: Yesterday, Stevens released a defiant statement a few hours after his indictment was announced, saying he never knowingly submitted a false disclosure form as a U.S. senator. He also declared he's innocent of the charges against him and that he intends to prove that.

For Senate Democrats, the indictment likely improves their chances of unseating Stevens in his re-election bid next fall, but majority leader Harry Reid was not gloating.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): It's a sad day for him, us, but you know, I believe in the American system of justice that he's presumed innocent. So as far as what's going to happen in the Republican caucus, that's up to them.

WELNA: Minority leader Mitch McConnell had no comment on Stevens' predicament, but his office did issue a statement saying that in line with GOP caucus rules, Stevens is stepping down from his post of top Republican on the Commerce Committee and the Defense Spending Subcommittee. Fellow Republican, John Warner, who's retiring at year's end, said seeing his old friend charged with seven felony counts left him feeling troubled about the institution of Congress.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): And our founding fathers said we're going to set up America on a tripod, with three, co-equal institutions, and we need every bit of strength we can to do our part under the Constitution to hold this three-legged stool up, and I just worry about the Senate. In many respects, I'm sorry I'm leaving.

WELNA: One reason Stevens had so much clout in the Senate is he gave generously to his colleagues' campaign funds. Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman got $20,000 from Stevens' political action committee for his re-election bid next fall, but he's resisting new calls by Democratic challenger Al Franken to return that money.

Senator NORM COLEMAN (Republican, Minnesota): Under our system of justice, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. I think we'll adhere to that principle before making any decisions before making any decisions about returning any contributions.

WELNA: Still, Coleman called Stevens' indictment a very, very serious matter. David Welna, NPR News, The Capitol.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

For a breakdown on the case against Senator Ted Stevens, visit NPR.org.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.