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52 Votes in Hand to Reject Tower : Added Opposition of 4 Democrats Creates Majority Against Nominee

Times Staff Writer

President Bush’s choice of former Sen. John Tower as defense secretary appeared doomed Wednesday when four more Democrats declared their intention to vote no--creating a 52-vote Senate majority against the controversial nominee.

The emotional turning point came in a dramatic floor speech by Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), a key uncommitted senator, who characterized Tower as a binge drinker who undergoes “a personality change when he uses alcohol--a recklessness in a social sense.”

But it was not until Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), a freshman, stood to make his maiden speech on the floor of the Senate that it was clear to everyone watching the debate that Democrats had the majority of 51 votes to kill the nomination. Lieberman said he had “too many unresolved doubts” about Tower’s fitness to support him.

Freshman Adds Voice

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Another freshman, Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), then added his voice to the opposition, giving the Democrats an insurance vote. Earlier in the day, Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), another holdout, had announced his intention to vote against Tower.

The statements of the four Democratic senators opened the way for a final vote on the nomination, perhaps as early as today. If rejected, Tower would be the first initial nominee of any President to be turned down by the Senate as well as the first former senator who has failed to win that chamber’s support for a Cabinet post.

The only thing that might reverse the momentum clearly running against Tower was a surprise, eleventh-hour proposal by Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) that the Senate consider confirming the nominee to head the Pentagon only until Oct. 1, when Bush would be required to resubmit the nomination. He said the proposal would give Tower an opportunity to demonstrate that he can keep his pledge to stop drinking.

Although Democrats said they would give Dole’s novel proposal serious consideration, Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) indicated he probably would not agree to a six-month “probationary period” for Tower. “The national interest requires that we move promptly to name a permanent secretary of defense,” he said.

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Dole acknowledged that his plan, which he said had the support of both the President and Tower himself, was born of desperation. He said he had told Tower over the telephone earlier in the day that there were not enough votes to confirm him, and added: “It takes a miracle at this point for John Tower to be confirmed.”

According to sources who attended a meeting between Bush and Dole at the White House earlier in the day, the President emphasized that it was he--not Tower--who was insisting on taking the confirmation fight to a showdown vote on the Senate floor, where 55 Democrats outnumber the 45 Republicans.

“I know people say I’m stubborn,” one source quoted the President as saying, “but a lot more is involved than just personal pride. It’s the prerogative of a President to pick his Cabinet and the fact that as far as I’m concerned, John Tower has been treated very badly.”

Bentsen Vows Support

The only good news Tower received Wednesday was the announced support of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), the former vice presidential nominee. Although the fellow Texans had served together in the Senate for 14 years, Bentsen said his support was not based on personal loyalty, but instead on his doubts Tower truly has a drinking problem.

Bentsen said he believes Tower would keep his pledge against drinking if he is confirmed. “I doubt that John Tower could get by with putting an olive in a glass of milk without his being observed,” Bentsen said.

After his speech, Bentsen received hugs and kisses in the lobby from Tower’s three daughters--all of them apparently teary-eyed.

According to Senate sources, none of the Democrats who seriously considered voting for Tower--including Bentsen--were willing to do so if it would be the decisive vote in his favor. Bentsen took his stand after receiving assurances from the Democratic leadership that there were already enough votes to defeat the nomination.

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Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) also announced his support for Tower on Wednesday, but the Republican leadership had never seriously doubted his willingness to vote with his party. He said that while he had doubted Tower’s commitment to reforming the procurement process at the Pentagon, he now thought the nominee might be the perfect person to do so.

Act of Loyalty

Johnston’s decision was clearly viewed as a laudable act of party loyalty by his Democratic colleagues and a statesmanlike show of support for Mitchell, who defeated him in a three-way race for majority leader late last year. Mitchell and others shook his hand and patted his back affectionately when he entered the chamber to make his statement.

In five long days of debate, no Democratic speaker before Johnston had tried to respond to the contention of many Republicans that Tower’s admitted excessive use of alcohol on past occasions did not constitute alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence or alcoholism.

But Johnston said that the FBI investigators had amassed “a formidable body of evidence” demonstrating that when Tower gets drunk, he undergoes a personality change that would create a dangerous problem for the nation if he were in charge of the military in a time of crisis.

“There seems to be a personality change when he uses alcohol--a recklessness in a social sense,” Johnston said. “Some, in the use of alcohol, do not suffer a change in conduct--a recklessness. (But with Tower) it is there. . . . There’s no doubt that when the problem exerts itself there is that change in judgment.”

Johnston said his judgment was based not solely upon the evidence collected by the FBI, but also upon an account of Tower’s behavior he received from an acquaintance who reported seeing the nominee drunk on two “fairly recent” occasions. Tower claims he has not been an excessive drinker since the 1970s.

Pleads With Chamber

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After Johnston spoke, Dole, who has masterminded Tower’s defense in the Senate, pleaded with the chamber to allow the nominee himself to come to the floor and answer questions about the allegations against him of drunkenness, womanizing and conflict of interest. It was a tactic that Dole had been considering for several days.

But Mitchell quickly rejected the idea, noting that no previous presidential nominee had ever been permitted to make such an appearance. He argued that if the Senate allowed Tower to speak on the floor, it would set a precedent that would force the Senate to give other presidential nominees the same opportunity in the future.

It was at that point that Dole offered his surprise proposal for confirming Tower on a trial basis. If the Senate agreed to his plan, he said, Tower today would sign a letter of resignation to the President dated Oct. 1--the beginning of the 1990 fiscal year--and Bush would be forced to resubmit the nomination for a second Senate confirmation after that date.

Mitchell replied that he knew of no precedent for such an unusual proposal. He said he doubted it would appeal to many senators who have been drained emotionally by five days of intensely personal debate on this nomination. “The only thing worse than having to go through this once would be to have to go through it twice,” he said.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), Tower’s chief accuser, also reacted negatively to the idea. “The question I have is how destabilizing this would be to the Department of Defense,” he said, adding that there is no guarantee the Pentagon will not have to deal with a military crisis during the next six months.

2 Support Argument

Both Lieberman and Robb supported the argument that has been made repeatedly by Nunn and other Democrats that Tower’s drinking habits would disqualify him from serving in lesser jobs at the Pentagon, particularly jobs involving nuclear weaponry. The Pentagon has strict rules against alcohol and drug abuse by military and civilian employees.

Nevertheless, Robb, who has repeatedly denied accusations by his political opponents that he attended parties where drugs were used, said he has sympathy for Tower--what he described as “a special understanding of how rumor and untruth can take on a life of their own.”


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