Ensign expresses regrets at GOP event

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Ensign apologized to fellow Republican senators Tuesday, saying he was sorry he embarrassed the Senate by having an extramarital affair with a family friend who worked for his political organizations.

Ensign spoke for about two minutes during a scheduled weekly luncheon in the Capitol attended by most of the Senate's 40 Republicans. When he finished, he was applauded.

The Nevadan was described as being humble and penitent during the closed-door luncheon. He did not go into details of the relationship with Cindy Hampton of Las Vegas and the complications that have grown from it in recent days.

Rather, he acknowledged he made a mistake and expressed contrition that he had brought embarrassment to his family and to the Senate, several senators said when they emerged from the meal.

"He apologized, and we welcomed him back," said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah.

"He was obviously somber and serious," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. "This was not a flippant thing that he did."

A little more than a week ago, Ensign, 51, was in the Senate leadership and was considered a rising star aimed at the top levels of the Republican Party. On Tuesday he entered and departed the luncheon through a back door.

Ensign did not comment and was mostly out of sight during his second day back in the Senate. After acknowledging the affair in a Las Vegas news conference on June 16, he stayed at home the rest of the week.

Ensign resigned as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, the No. 4 leadership post, last week.

It was not yet clear how far to the back bench the scandal might push Ensign in the Senate.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who leads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party's campaign arm, said he did not know yet what role Ensign might play in helping 2010 GOP candidates in Nevada and elsewhere.

"It is entirely up to him," Cornyn said. In Nevada, he added, "we don't have a candidate yet" to run against Sen. Harry Reid. "When we get a candidate, we will see how it goes."

Senators had no questions for Ensign during lunch. Afterward, several of them did not want to discuss whether the Nevadan should provide more details of the affair with an employee conducted while the woman's husband, Doug Hampton, also worked for Ensign, as his top administrative aide.

Ensign disclosed the extramarital relationship, which occurred from December 2007 to August 2008, after he thought that Doug Hampton, 47, was about to make it public in the national media, his aides have said.

Ensign's office has said Hampton through an attorney was demanding a large sum of money.

The Las Vegas Sun reported Friday that Doug Hampton had penned a June 11 letter to Fox News Channel asking anchorwoman Megyn Kelly for help exposing Ensign. Doug Hampton said he and his wife "were dismissed" from Ensign's employ in April 2008, in the midst of the affair.

Cindy Hampton, 46, was treasurer of Ensign's campaign fund and his personal political action committee, the Battle Born PAC, until the couple left.

Cindy Hampton's salary doubled near the time their relationship started. Ensign's office has said her job was expanded to include handling direct mail and other added accounting responsibilities.

A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said it was preparing to file a Senate ethics complaint against Ensign today.

The complaint is expected to urge the Senate to determine whether Ensign broke employment law in dealings with the Hamptons.

The complaint also is expected to focus on whether Ensign made any severance payments to Cindy Hampton, which would need to have been reported under election law.

Asked on Tuesday whether Ensign has more to explain, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said: "I think Sen. Ensign will address whatever needs to be said from here on."

Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said he did not think Ensign has to answer more questions.

"He expressed great regret, and I think it was sincere and people deserve the opportunity to say I am sorry and move on," Martinez said.

Corker said Ensign was applauded for how he has acknowledged his indiscretions.

"From what I have seen in Washington, I think he has been very stand-up about it," Corker said. "Look, he made a mistake, he said he made a mistake, and he is very apologetic for that at every appropriate level.

"Today he did what he needed to do for us," Corker said.

On Tuesday morning, Ensign called Reid, a Reid spokesman said. Details of the call could not be learned. The two spoke several times last week when news of the affair was emerging, the spokesman said.

Reid and Ensign boast a strong friendship. Later in the day, Reid limited his comments about Ensign when asked about him by reporters. He said he still considered Ensign a friend and was hoping the fellow Nevadan would recover.

"I am concerned about his family, and I hope he works his way through this," Reid said.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.