Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) announced today that he will vote to confirm fellow Texan John Tower as secretary of defense, but Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell said he still had the votes to defeat the nomination.
Bentsen, the 1988 Democratic vice presidential candidate, became the third Democratic senator to break party ranks and throw his weight behind the embattled nominee.
“We have seen every imperfection in an essentially good man dragged into the pitiless glare of television lights,” Bentsen said. “It has been a high price to pay for public service. I will vote for John Tower’s confirmation.”
Mitchell told reporters earlier in the day that no matter what decision Bentsen made, the Democrats “still have ample votes to reject confirmation.” He urged Republicans to permit a swift vote, but GOP Leader Bob Dole declared: “We don’t want to prolong the debate--we want to win.”
Dole did not directly dispute Mitchell’s claim. “We’re not certain,” he said. “It’s going to be a very close vote.”
Bentsen, who served in the Senate with Tower, said he was impressed with Tower’s pledge not to drink if confirmed to head the Pentagon.
“I doubt that John Tower could get by with putting an olive in a glass of milk. The scrutiny of his life is going to be so intense that he may wish he had never sought out this job,” Bentsen said.
Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), who had been listed by some Republicans as a potential swing vote, announced earlier that he will vote against Tower because he has come to believe that the relationships Tower forged with defense contractors after leaving government service pose “at least the appearance of conflict of interest.”
“In this case, I do believe it’s in the nation’s best interests for the President to make another choice,” Pell said.
An Associated Press survey indicates 48 Democrats and Republican Larry Pressler of South Dakota as either firmly opposed to the nomination or leaning in that direction, and 40 Republicans and three Democrats either firmly in favor or leaning that way.
Dole (R-Kan.) said he had talked by telephone earlier today with President Bush, who continues to support Tower. He said he would continue the effort to “attract enough Republicans and Democrats to support the nomination.”
Dole and Mitchell thus set the stage for a fifth day of debate on the nomination, which has produced frayed tempers and unusual personal outbursts on both sides of the struggle.
Mitchell was asked if he is disturbed that the Senate may be damaged by the debate’s increasingly bitter and personal tone.
“Yes I am,” he replied. “I think the way to end it is to vote. Letters are coming in saying, ‘Enough is enough--this has gone on too long.’
“I believe enough time has been devoted to this matter,” Mitchell said.
Republicans now hope to convert other undecided Democrats, concentrating their efforts on a handful of lawmakers. These include Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Charles Robb of Virginia and Bennett Johnston of Louisiana.
Democratic Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Howell Heflin of Alabama said earlier they will support the nomination.