Republicans on Friday proposed the unprecedented step of summoning President Bush’s nominee for defense secretary, former Texas Sen. John Tower, to the Senate floor next week to answer charges against him of alcohol abuse, womanizing and conflict of interest.
The suggestion, made by Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), reflects the Bush Administration strategy of using the Senate debate to defend Tower’s reputation and the President’s judgment in selecting him, even if the nomination already appears doomed to defeat.
As Dole explained it: “The request would be that John Tower be allowed to come to this chamber to stand in this well and to answer his critics face to face, charge by charge, rumor by rumor and fact by fact.”
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) said he would consider the proposal, which clearly was designed to make Tower’s opponents squirm, if Dole enters a formal motion before the expected Senate vote on the nomination sometime next week.
The spectacle of a question-and-answer session on the Senate floor with the embattled nominee would further strain relations between the majority and minority in the chamber, where tempers have flared frequently in the last two days, causing an unusual breach in decorum.
Tower appears to be headed for rejection on a vote along party lines. Bush needs the support of at least five Democrats to win confirmation, but none have come forth to support Tower so far. In fact, one Democrat who appeared favorable to Tower, Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, announced that he had decided to vote against the President’s choice.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) chastised his Democratic colleagues Friday for making their judgment based on allegations uncovered by the FBI’s investigation of Tower instead of relying on their own recollections of his behavior during 24 years in the Senate.
“Who knows John Tower best?” Stevens asked. “Some one whose office was just around the corner from his? Or someone who reports that he was seen touching a young woman? . . . I want the Senate to look at this on the basis of what we know about John Tower.”
The President demonstrated his continued support for his nominee by making a trip to the Pentagon, where he was greeted by Tower and Defense Department officials. Bush posed for pictures with Tower, even allowing photographers inside the meeting for a few minutes.
Tower and his frequent companion, Dorothy Heyser, were also among the President’s guests at a buffet dinner and movie at the White House on Thursday night.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Bush is “making a lot of phone calls” in an effort to persuade senators to support Tower. “It’s an all-out fight, and we’ve committed a number of resources and time and energy by the entire staff to this effort,” he said.
Bush at Camp David
Nevertheless, Bush left the White House Friday to spend the weekend at Camp David, Md., and White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu was on a ski weekend in New Hampshire.
Dole said his suggestion to bring Tower to the Senate floor was based on his conclusion that the nominee has been slandered during the confirmation process by “nameless accusers who are unknown to the nominee, rumors slipped under the door, anonymous telephone calls and letters, aliases and all the rest.”
The minority leader acknowledged that there is no precedent for questioning a presidential nominee on the floor of the Senate, but he recalled that, in 1933, Republican leader James Watson of Indiana moved to have the sergeant-at-arms brought before the Senate for questioning and that Democratic leader Joseph Robinson of Arkansas supported the motion.
A spokesman for Tower said he would consider it an honor to appear on the floor.
Dole’s proposal apparently was designed to underscore the argument being made by Tower’s Republican supporters that they cannot adequately rebut allegations against the nominee because the FBI’s findings are secret. Republicans argue that the public would see how flimsy the allegations are if the report became public.
Democrats respond that it is the President’s prerogative to make the FBI report public. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S. C.) said he had been told by reliable sources that Tower opposes making the FBI report public.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), in a lengthy defense of the FBI investigation, noted that the Bush Administration had asked the Senate to rely on those findings to resolve questions about Tower’s character and background.
“The Bush Administration presented us with this nomination knowing full well that we would be faced with an FBI report filled with specific, direct allegations of misconduct as well as contradictions, partial rebuttals and favorable comments,” Nunn said.
Republicans such as Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) argued that the FBI report does not present an air-tight legal case of misconduct by Tower and thus the nominee is being denied due process. But Democrats replied that the confirmation process is not a criminal proceeding requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
“You want him drunk and criminal” to be subject to rejection, Hollings told Wallop. “All I have to do is find him drunk and he’s not going to get my vote for secretary of defense.”
Hollings said the record shows that Tower would not qualify for a sensitive position in the Navy under a 1985 Defense Department directive that rules out anyone with “a hint” of alcohol abuse. In Tower’s record, he said, “there are so many ‘hints’ all over the blooming place"--including at least 10 known reports of drunkenness in 1988 alone.
The speeches by Hollings and Stevens were unusually bitter, lacking the courtesy that is common in Senate debate on most issues that do not involve members so personally. “It’s obviously getting closer to a partisan free-for-all,” Sen. Steve Symms (R-Ida.) said.
Stevens angrily questioned why the usual senatorial courtesy was not being extended to their former colleague from Texas. “He is my friend,” he declared. “I thought he was your friend, and I want justice for my friend.”
But Hollings replied that the debate over Tower’s life style was creating a public misimpression that members of the Senate frequently indulge in drinking, partying and womanizing.
“It’s our character here that’s being assassinated, not John Tower’s,” he said.