In a major rebuke to President Bush just 49 days into his term, the Democratic-controlled Senate today rejected the nomination of former Texas Sen. John Tower as defense secretary by a vote of 53 to 47.
The White House said Bush would act swiftly to submit a replacement nomination to the Senate.
Today’s vote came after a bitter and divisive debate focused on Tower’s drinking habits, behavior toward women and his business dealings with defense contractors.
It was only the ninth time in 200 years that the Senate has voted to reject a President’s Cabinet choice and the only time it has done so early in a new Administration.
Vice President Dan Quayle presided over the Senate during the roll call, underscoring Bush’s commitment to the nominee. The Senate galleries were packed and virtually all senators were in their seats as the roll was called.
Only three of the 55 Senate Democrats voted for Tower, while only one of the 45 Republicans, Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, voted against.
Kassebaum said her “most serious concerns” were over Tower’s activities as a defense consultant after serving as an arms control negotiator. She also expressed doubts that he would pay enough attention to ensuring fairness for women in the military.
Names most frequently mentioned in speculation on a replacement candidate included Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), the ranking GOP member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former secretary of the Navy; former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; former Rep. Jack Edwards (R-Ala.) and Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, attempting to put the best face on the Administration’s first major setback, said the experience produced some benefits, such as Republican unity.
“Personally he (Bush) is disappointed in the loss,” Fitzwater told reporters. “We felt we did everything we could.”
Granted it was a “first knock,” said the press secretary, but he added the Administration was not wounded and “we’ve got eight years to go.”
Senate Republican leader Bob Dole agreed to a late-afternoon vote on the nomination after acknowledging the collapse of a last-minute bid to give Tower an extraordinary six-month trial period as defense secretary to prove he could abstain from drinking.
“The bottom line in this place is how many votes do you have, how many votes can you change, can you change any?” said Dole of Kansas. “And I think it is fairly clear (we are) not going to change any votes.”
It was unlikely a Pentagon boss could be confirmed before early April, since a new nominee must be screened and the Senate has a two-week recess at the end of March.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who initially supported Tower but changed his mind as allegations poured in, told the Senate charges that Tower had been treated unfairly are baseless.
“What is being protested here is not process, but rather the result. . . . This is not a trial. This is not an impeachment. This is advice and consent. . . . There’s no constitutional right to be in the Cabinet,” said Nunn.