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Tower Unwilling to Concede Defeat : Some Senators May Change Minds, Defense Nominee Says

Times Staff Writer

John Tower said Sunday that the rancorous Senate debate over his nomination to be secretary of defense is not helping his chances, but he refused to concede defeat, suggesting that some senators opposed to his confirmation may change their minds.

Tower added during a nationally televised interview that he had become a “relatively secondary” figure in a historic struggle between President Bush and the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Tower, a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and four-term senator, again refused during his appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation” to consider backing out before a vote on his nomination is held, probably before the end of this week.

“I think it would be damaging to the President if he withdrew my name or if I withdrew,” Tower said, “because it would mean that the President had finally been pressured into pulling down a nominee that he believes to be eminently qualified. . . .

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John Tower ‘Not Issue’

“And I think in the process what will become clear here is that . . . John Tower is not really the issue--John Tower was simply the instrument by which the President was defeated on a major decision,” Tower added.

Democrats opposed to Tower, led by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn, have charged that his excessive drinking and high-paid work for defense contractors shortly after he was a U.S. arms negotiator at Geneva have disqualified him to run the Pentagon.

His Republican defenders, however, contend that the allegations are not corroborated and accuse the Democrats of setting new ethical standards as an excuse to reject the President’s highly qualified nominee.

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Senate debate is scheduled to resume today and Republican champions of Tower said it could go on for a long time, but most senators expect a roll call on the nomination by Wednesday or Thursday.

Bush spent the weekend at Camp David, Md., while his chief of staff, John H. Sununu, went to New Hampshire for a skiing weekend with Vice President Dan Quayle, leaving Tower to carry a heavy burden in the prolonged confirmation fight.

Face to Face Session

Meantime, Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas said on another television program, ABC’s “This Week With David Brinkley,” that he would ask the Senate early this week for permission to have Tower come to the Senate chamber to face his friends, foes and undecided lawmakers before a vote is taken.

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“We’d like these five, six, seven or eight undecided Democrats and Republicans to have a chance to ask questions,” Dole said. “Maybe they’ll change their minds.”

Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.), appearing with Dole, said that Tower had “an outside chance” to win confirmation, and Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), who remains uncommitted, said the outcome may be decided by a single vote.

But Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), a conservative Democrat wooed by President Bush who later came out against Tower, urged Tower to withdraw his name because “I don’t think he’s going to make it.”

DeConcini said that when he talked to Bush, he called his attention to several items in the FBI reports that the President had not read.

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Bush Denies Knowledge

“He (Bush) wrote them down. He said: ‘I didn’t know they were in there.’ And to me, that’s significant, that the Administration wasn’t totally briefed on the whole thing.”

Other senators began talking about possible alternatives to Tower. Heflin, appearing on the CNN program “Newsmaker Sunday,” endorsed former Republican Rep. Jack Edwards of Alabama for the post if Tower is defeated.

“We have an Alabamian that we think a great deal of,” Heflin said of Edwards. “He was an outstanding member of Congress, very knowledgeable on defense matters.”

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Sen. Richard C. Shelby (D-Ala.), who is opposed to Tower, agreed about Edwards but said there were many others who could handle the job.

“The nomination of Sen. Tower is crippled,” he said on the CNN program. “I don’t believe he’s going to make it.”

Leaning Against Nomination

Meantime, a spokesman for Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) said he was “leaning very heavily against” the nomination as time neared for a vote.

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However, Sens. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) and Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) were key lawmakers who have not announced how they intend to vote.

If the Republicans can hold all of their 45 senators, they need at least five Democrats to vote for Tower. This would create a 50-50 tie and Quayle would cast a tie-breaking vote in favor of confirmation.

Tower, however, pinned his hopes for victory on making converts out of senators who already have announced their opposition.

When an interviewer said that “everybody knows you can’t win,” Tower replied:

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“I don’t concede that for one moment. . . . Senators are quite capable of changing their minds. I’ve seen them do it many times. . . . And I think there’s an imminent possibility that some minds will be changed as this situation plays out, and as the arguments against me appear to be more thin.”

Makes Distinction

On the central issue concerning his use of alcohol, Tower distinguished between “excessive drinking,” which he said was a problem for him in the 1970s, and “alcohol abuse,” which he denied.

While he has pledged to stop drinking any alcoholic beverage if he is confirmed, Tower added, he still has “a sip of wine every now and then.”

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When asked why he did not stop drinking now as a sign of good faith, Tower responded: “Why should I? . . . It’s so little that it doesn’t really matter. And one reason that I can give it up, and give it up easily, is because it doesn’t really matter that much.”


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