President Bush’s persistent support of John Tower to be secretary of defense Monday yielded its first declared Democratic backer, Sen. Howell Heflin of Alabama, whose surprise announcement revived the Republican’s dwindling chances of winning the protracted confirmation battle.
Heflin, a former state Supreme Court judge who has a reputation as a Senate maverick, said he was persuaded to vote for Tower in part by the nominee’s highly publicized pledge to quit drinking if confirmed.
“I will rely on his pledge and give him a chance to prove himself,” he said.
His announcement brought some much-needed encouragement to the GOP at a time when its cause looked almost hopeless. A White House official hailed it as “a very good sign,” and Tower issued a statement thanking Heflin for putting the matter “in its proper perspective.”
‘Explore Every Possibility’
“There’s always a chance,” White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater insisted. “Until you have a vote, there’s always a chance and you need to explore every possibility.”
But no one on the Republican side of the aisle seized upon it as a harbinger of victory. The President needs at least five Democratic votes to win confirmation of Tower, and that assumes that all 45 Republicans will vote for it.
Although there are still enough officially undecided Democrats who could provide the margin for Tower, even many Republicans acknowledged that their chances of winning are slim. Not only is the President unlikely to sway four more Democrats, but also at least one Republican--Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.)--has indicated that he is leaning against the nominee.
Other Democrats who still seemed genuinely undecided Monday were Sens. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, Christopher J. Dodd and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana and Charles S. Robb of Virginia.
There were some indications that Dodd, Lieberman and perhaps even Robb might declare their intentions today, but aides to all three senators said Heflin’s announcement would not sway their thinking one way or another.
White House officials were especially hopeful of garnering the votes of Bentsen and Johnston. Bentsen, who has kept silent on the matter for weeks, served for many years with Tower as a fellow Texan in the Senate, and Johnston has publicly characterized the FBI’s investigation of Tower’s personal life as unreliable.
Dodd has acknowledged that he owes a debt to Tower, who in 1967 was one of five senators who voted against censuring his father, Sen. Thomas Dodd (D-Conn.), for financial misconduct. Nevertheless, he has said he feels no obligation to vote for Tower as a result.
Heflin declined to discuss how much pressure had been placed on him by White House lobbying. Although he met with the President last Tuesday, a White House aide insisted that “no favors were asked or given” to win his vote.
“There was nothing like that,” he said. “That was definitely not the case.”
In the last two years, Heflin has proven himself to be a maverick on several occasions. As a member of the Senate committee that investigated the Iran-Contra scandal, he was quicker than most Democrats to state that President Reagan’s aides had acted illegally. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was one of the last Democrats to declare opposition to Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee, Robert H. Bork.
He said Monday that he had decided that, although Tower’s personal behavior “is not applaudable, not without justifiable criticism,” it was “not disqualifying.” He said that he expects Tower, who has been accused of womanizing and excessive drinking, to honor his no-alcohol pledge and that he is certain that the former Texas senator would be held to it by intense scrutiny on the part of the public and the President.
“John Tower, if confirmed, will live in a glass bowl,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.), who had been leaning against Tower, announced that he would vote against him, and Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) let it be known that he also was leaning against confirmation.
Bush ‘Sick and Tired’
Heflin’s announcement followed another statement of support for Tower from the President, who told a Veterans of Foreign Wars conference that he was “getting sick and tired of the rumors and the innuendo” that have besmirched the nominee’s reputation.
“It is very interesting that not one single United States senator has challenged John Tower’s knowledge on defense matters or his experience to do this job,” Bush said, showing flashes of anger. “Not one single senator. And I stand by this man. I stand by him because he is uniquely qualified as the right man to take charge of the Pentagon.”
Bush portrayed Tower as a “decent man” and a patriot.
“You know John Tower as a fellow veteran, and you know him as a lifelong public servant, and you also know him as a fighter,” he said. “He’s fought for his country as a 17-year-old enlisted man in the United States Navy, and now he and I are fighting for what I think are some very important principles--principles that the American people understand, like fairness and truth; and principles like the prerogative of a President of the United States to assemble the most talented and qualified team to guide this nation forward.”
Sununu Meets With Senators
Later in the day, Bush’s White House chief of staff, John H. Sununu, met in the Capitol with a number of GOP senators, including Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, John W. Warner of Virginia, Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire, William S. Cohen of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. White House officials said afterward that they expect a final vote on Tower Wednesday or Thursday, but Senate leaders were making no predictions. Republicans have insisted on debating the matter at length to defend Tower and the President’s judgment in selecting him.
As Senate debate on the nomination droned on, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a Mormon and a teetotaler, said he was stunned by the high standard--what he termed the “Senate bed and breath check"--that Democrats were imposing on Tower. He warned fellow senators: “If we decide to impose these standards on Sen. Tower, then they will eventually be used on us.”
Seizing on the same theme, Assistant Minority Leader Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) said: “If John Tower’s nomination is defeated by the Senate, there will be losers only . . . . I strongly urge my colleagues to walk a mile in John Tower’s shoes before they vote against him.”
Staff writers James Gerstenzang and David Lauter contributed to this story.