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8 Uncommitted Senators Tie Up Decision on Tower

Times Staff Writer

It is a classic Catch-22 situation.

Until the full Senate casts its vote on the nomination of John Tower as defense secretary, key senators are refusing to disclose how they will vote. At the same time, Republicans are refusing to agree to a vote until they are certain of the outcome.

That, in short, is the perplexing political knot that has tied up the Senate for the last week, prolonging the debate on President Bush’s controversial nominee to head the Pentagon, even though most members are ready to vote.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) tried without success to persuade members of the Senate to end the misery. “There is one way to end it and that is to vote on the nomination,” he said. “That’s what the Constitution mandates.”

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But Mitchell’s plea fell on deaf ears. At least eight senators--Republicans as well as Democrats--stubbornly remained publicly uncommitted, even though the issue has been preoccupying them and other senators to the exclusion of all else almost since the day Tower was nominated, last Dec. 16.

The list of uncommitted still includes five Democrats--Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Charles S. Robb of Virginia--and three Republicans--Larry Pressler of South Dakota, Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa.

At least two of the Democrats--Bentsen and Johnston--have indicated that they do not intend to disclose their decisions until the last minute. Ironically, these are two of the Senate’s most influential men and the very Democrats who are viewed by the President’s aides as the most likely to break with their party.

Bentsen’s ties to Tower are obvious. The two men served as fellow Texans in the Senate until 1984, when Tower retired after 24 years in the chamber. Like Bentsen, Johnston has a long history of independence in the votes he casts. On Tuesday, he acknowledged that while he and Tower were never “chums,” they have always shared a sense of mutual respect.

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The other three uncommitted Democrats are more likely to announce their decisions soon, although Pell has indicated that he is in no hurry.

Sources said that Lieberman, a freshman, who is expected to announce his decision as early as today, had been waiting for Christopher J. Dodd--the senior Democratic senator from Connecticut--to disclose how he will vote. Dodd said Tuesday he will support Tower.

Although Robb has declined to discuss his reasons for postponing a decision, he is believed to be wrestling with two competing factors--his belief as a former governor that the chief executive should be allowed to select his own Cabinet and his longtime friendship with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), Tower’s leading critic.

On the Republican side of the aisle, Pressler got public attention for his early declaration that he was leaning heavily against Tower because of his work on behalf of defense contractors--a background that Pressler thinks would leave the nominee unable to reform the procurement system at the Pentagon. Nevertheless, Pressler has not closed the door to voting for him.

Likewise, Republican sources who declined to be identified expressed optimism that both Kassebaum and Grassley will support Tower when the final votes are cast.

Kassebaum said Tuesday that while she has been publicly uncommitted--and intends to hold her silence until the final hour--she has told the President in confidence how she intends to vote. Many senators assume that Kassebaum’s reluctance to support Tower is based on what some have described as his “indiscreet” behavior involving women.

Grassley, another senator with a reputation for independence, also told reporters once again Tuesday that he has nothing to say on the subject of the Tower nomination.


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