Key presidential aides, bone-weary from a 13-hour flight home from South Korea, headed directly from Air Force One to the White House on Monday night for an emergency strategy session on how to lobby the handful of Democratic senators who hold the fate of John Tower’s nomination as secretary of defense.
And the consensus seems clear: The only hope now lies in direct appeals by President Bush himself, beginning today with a series of Oval Office meetings with the Democrats.
Challenge to Authority Cited
“This is a fight the President has to make,” not one that can be carried on by staff, said one key member of the lobbying team. “It’s a challenge to his executive authority.”
Bush’s pitch, a senior adviser said, will be to ask the 12 senators he plans to meet with to “put things in perspective, remember that this is a Cabinet nominee and the President is due a presumption that the person should be confirmed.”
Bush will argue that senators need not look for clear-cut proof that all doubts about Tower have been resolved. Instead, the adviser said, he will say that, because the President has confidence in the nominee, “there should be overwhelming evidence of character or personal defect” for senators to vote no.
In the meantime, White House aides will hunt for additional inducements that might keep Republicans from straying out of line or that might tempt Democrats to join the team. “It’s pretty much arm-twisting, arm-breaking, whatever it takes,” one senior White House aide said, although Administration staff members concede that on a post as important as Pentagon chief, traditional pork-barrel lobbying must be done delicately, if at all.
White House lobbyists have spent most of the last five days trying to shore up Tower’s support among the Senate’s 45 Republicans. Although they acknowledge that at least two Republicans, Sens. Larry Pressler of South Dakota and Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, remain questionable, they now believe, as one put it, that “the groundwork has been laid” for Bush’s personal appeals. In addition to Pressler and Kassebaum, Republican vote counters were uneasy about Sens. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and William L. Armstrong of Colorado.
Recognizing that even the President’s efforts may not be enough, however, White House lobbyists are looking ahead to the question of how to handle failure. The consensus among aides now appears to be that it would be better for Bush in the long term to fight and lose on the Senate floor on a party-line vote than to back down and withdraw the controversial nomination, possibly reviving the “wimp” label that plagued him through the early days of his presidential campaign.
Bush plans to begin his efforts at an 8:15 a.m. breakfast today with Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.). Although Bush is not likely to lobby Mitchell for his vote--White House vote counters consider the Democratic leader an almost certain vote against Tower--the meeting will give Bush an opportunity to discuss ground rules for the Senate debate, which is scheduled to begin Wednesday, and to emphasize that he does not see the fight as a partisan battle.
Although some White House aides have been chafing to escalate the partisan rhetoric over Tower, the Democrats’ 55-45 control of the Senate guarantees that in a partisan fight Tower, and Bush, would lose.
Call From Air Force One
Throughout the rest of the day, Bush’s meetings will be with senators he hopes to persuade. With some, he began the effort even as he flew home Monday, calling Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), for example, from Air Force One to ask him to “keep an open mind,” members of the senator’s staff said.
In addition to Mitchell and DeConcini, Bush is expected to meet with several Southern and border state Democrats, including Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, John B. Breaux and J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, Howell Heflin of Alabama, Bob Graham of Florida, Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, Terry Sanford of North Carolina and Charles S. Robb of Virginia. He also is likely to meet with Sens. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii.
In mid-afternoon, Bush plans to hold a Cabinet meeting. Although the meeting ostensibly has been called to brief Cabinet members on Bush’s trip to Asia, it will also give the White House a chance to show Tower sitting at the President’s side, hard at work. By late Monday, the session had not been scheduled to be opened for news photographs, officials said, but that could change.
Monday night’s meeting--attended by White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chief White House lobbyist Frederick D. McClure and Powell A. Moore, another longtime Republican lobbyist--marks the end of the first phase of the White House battle to resurrect the nomination.
The meeting was designed to “set some priorities for the President” in the effort that will begin this morning, said one senior Republican operative who was summoned to work on the nomination fight.
The first part of the White House drive began late Wednesday as Bush aides--belatedly, their critics say--realized that the nomination was in serious trouble and was likely to be voted down by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Thursday, the committee voted, 11 to 9, to recommend that the full Senate reject the nomination.
Until now, the White House effort has concentrated on shoring up Tower’s support among Senate Republicans while trying to persuade at least a few Democrats not to take public positions before Bush could meet with them. McClure and Moore, working with Dole and William L. Ball III, a former White House lobbyist who is now secretary of the Navy, divided up the Senate Republicans, determining who needed to be contacted and assigning calls, aides said.
Many Senators Contacted
Vice President Dan Quayle, Warner and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and William S. Cohen (R-Me.) each have contacted several GOP senators. In addition, several longtime Republican operatives were called in to contact Republican senators to whom they have ties, reminding them of the importance of sticking with the President and the potential political dangers of straying from the party line.
It is a measure of how pervasive Tower’s influence is throughout the Bush Administration that two of the key players in the lobbying effort, McClure and Ball, are former Tower aides.
McClure, the only black member of Bush’s inner circle of aides, first came to Washington as an intern in 1975, then, after graduating from Texas A&M;, went to work for Tower as a legislative assistant, one of only a small number of blacks holding such jobs on Capitol Hill at the time. He later returned to Texas, went to Baylor University law school and then rejoined Tower’s staff in 1983 before going on to posts in the Justice Department and the Ronald Reagan White House. In 1986, he became a vice president of Texas Air Corp., where he was working when Bush asked him to return to Washington as head of the White House congressional liaison office.
Ball joined Tower’s staff in 1975 after seven years as a Navy officer. He served as Tower’s top aide for several years before becoming assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs and then Reagan’s top legislative lobbyist. He was named Navy secretary last year, a job he is expected to keep if Tower is confirmed.
Staff writers Cathleen Decker and Melissa Healy contributed to this story.