Senate Fails to Reach Accord on Diplomatic Nominees : Vote on Nearly 30 Appointees Delayed Until After Holiday; Conservatives Claim ‘Purge’

Times Staff Writer

A desperate, last-minute attempt to break a weeklong impasse that had blocked nearly 30 diplomatic appointments failed Thursday on the Senate floor, as Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) announced the nominations would be held over until after Congress’ Fourth of July recess.

Throughout the day, Dole had sought to mollify a group of conservative senators who had objected to what they called a “purge” of political appointees from the diplomatic service and who had placed a hold on confirmation of all pending ambassadorships and State Department executive posts.

But Thursday evening, Dole told the Senate: “I checked with the Administration, and if we can’t clear all of the nominees, we can’t clear any. My hope was that we could confirm all of them, and since we can’t do them today, we agreed to postpone all until after the recess.”

Revolt Sparked by Gavin


Earlier, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) had indicated that an accord had been reached and that the entire bloc of nominations would be approved. The revolt was sparked by the concern of U.S. Ambassador to Mexico John A. Gavin that he was about to lose his job, Lugar said in an interview.

Lugar, whose leadership of the Foreign Relations Committee has been challenged by the controversy, said the episode resulted from a misunderstanding by the ambassador. “There was never any intention to remove or replace Gavin,” he said.

Asked about Lugar’s version of events, Gavin’s spokesman at the Mexico City embassy, Lee Johnson, said, “The ambassador has always enjoyed the full confidence of the President.”

President Reagan himself had intervened in the dispute when he met Wednesday with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Dole and other key senators. A Helms aide, who spoke on condition that he not be identified, said the North Carolina senator had extracted a White House commitment that Gavin would stay on indefinitely--and that five other political appointees Helms was seeking to protect would retain their jobs or move to posts of equal or greater importance.


Compromise Offered

But those commitments were placed in doubt Thursday after other conservative senators refused to lift their holds on all of the appointments. Helms’ aide said he had offered to go along with a bloc vote on half of the names, but the State Department rejected the compromise.

Lugar said the episode began when Gavin received a memo earlier this year from Michael K. Deaver, then White House deputy chief of staff, saying that ambassadors were to be rotated between diplomatic posts every 2 1/2 years.

“He came to see me, and I told him it was also true that the President was making a fair number of personal exceptions, such as Mike Mansfield in Japan, Max Rabb in Italy, and that he would be staying in Mexico City,” Lugar said.


It was unclear whether Gavin actually made a personal plea to the conservatives. But Helms and seven other Senate Republicans--worried about what they perceived as an Administration drive to replace political appointees with career Foreign Service officers--wrote Dole last week and threatened to hold up all Foreign Service nominees whose appointments require Senate confirmation.

The dissidents requested a meeting with Secretary of State George P. Shultz, which took place Tuesday in Lugar’s office. “The secretary responded positively to some suggestions and negatively to others,” Lugar said.

At a testy committee session later that day, Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) denounced a “self-appointed band of ideological inquisitors” who had launched an attack on professional diplomats reminiscent of the tactics of the late Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.).