LAS VEGAS — The Senate Ethics Committee said scandal-scarred Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign made the right decision to turn in a letter of resignation Friday as he faced an unrelenting, but as yet unfinished, two-year probe of his conduct.
The panel's chairman, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and the vice chairman, Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, issued a terse statement saying the committee had spent 22 months investigating "and will complete its work in a timely fashion."
"Senator Ensign has made the appropriate decision," the statement said.
The committee cannot take disciplinary action against Ensign once he is no longer a senator, and, with the Senate in recess, it is unlikely that the committee will be able to do so before Ensign's May 3 resignation.
The committee could, however, issue an embarrassing statement on the propriety of Ensign's behavior after his departure and even go so far as to recommend a criminal investigation. Committee members do not have authority over federal investigators, and their request could be ignored.
Ensign, 53, cited "wear and tear" on himself and his family in his resignation announcement Thursday.
His decision comes nearly two years after Ensign acknowledged having had an extramarital affair with a former staffer. He was accused of helping the woman's husband — a top former Ensign staffer — obtain lobbying work.
Ensign's pending departure also casts a new sense of urgency over Nevada's closely watched Senate race to replace him. After he announced last month that he would not seek re-election, Democrats hoped to claim the seat to protect their fragile Senate majority.
In the meantime, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval will appoint a successor to serve the remainder of the term through the end of 2012. Sandoval previously had endorsed Republican Rep. Dean Heller of northern Nevada in the race and is widely expected to crown him an incumbent, affording Heller a slight advantage over Rep. Shelley Berkley, the Democrat's favored candidate.
Heller's appointment to the Senate, meanwhile, would require an unprecedented special congressional election in Nevada.
Because of a quirk of Nevada politics, state leaders are uncertain about how to carry out the never-enforced special election law, which does not allow for a primary. Their decision could decide the political fate of tea party favorite and perennial candidate Sharron Angle, who has been running for Heller's seat and could be closed out of the race if party leaders are allowed to pick their general election contestants.
Ensign insisted Thursday he has done nothing wrong. But he said he was shaken by the Senate Ethics Committee decision in February to name a special counsel to look into the matter, after the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission investigated and then dropped their cases.
"I was hopeful that, with the closure of these investigations against me, the wear and tear on my family and me would soon be over. This was not the case," he said.