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Mitchell, Nunn Score a Signal Senate Victory : New Democratic Leader Wins His First Test; Georgian Demonstrates His Influence in Party

Times Staff Writers

For a brief interlude at the beginning of this week, the White House actually believed that it could push John Tower through the Senate.

It was on Monday that Sen. Howell Heflin of Alabama became the first Democrat to announce his support of the nomination of the former Texas senator to be defense secretary. White House vote counters reckoned then that they had 49 of the 50 votes they needed: all 45 Senate Republicans plus Democrats Heflin, Christopher S. Dodd of Connecticut, Lloyd Bentsen of Texas and J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana.

Looking for that last elusive vote, President Bush met in the Oval Office with Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, who had entered the Senate in the same year as Tower (1961) and who was thought to be troubled by the rough treatment that his former colleague was receiving from his Democratic opponents. To build momentum, Republicans arranged for Dodd to announce his support for Tower on Tuesday and planned for Bentsen to do the same Wednesday.

Johnston’s Decision

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Then, Republican hopes evaporated as suddenly as they had materialized. In a private telephone call, Johnston notified Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) that he was voting against Tower.

So even as Dodd became the second Democrat to break ranks, Mitchell calmly announced that Tower would be defeated. In the end, 52 Democrats voted against Tower and, with the support of Republican Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, they scored a 53-47 victory Thursday.

Tower’s defeat represented a signal victory, not only for Mitchell in his first test as the Senate’s new Democratic leader, but especially for Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). Nunn, concentrating on Tower’s drinking habits and his consulting company’s acceptance of $750,000 from defense contractors since he left the Senate in 1984, led the opposition to Tower both in his committee and on the Senate floor.

“It’s a testimony to Sam Nunn’s influence,” a senior Bush adviser said. “I don’t think there’s another committee chairman who could have pulled this off, because there were a helluva lot of Democrats who weren’t all that comfortable with where they were.”

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White House Miscalculation

The outcome also reflected lack of sufficient White House concern over Tower’s confirmation, despite early warning signals from Nunn. Only after Nunn’s committee voted, 11 to 9, against Tower--at a time when Bush was half-way around the world at the funeral of Emperor Hirohito in Japan--did the President swing into action to save his nominee.

At that point, Tower wanted to back out and spare Bush further embarrassment. He went to the President and offered to withdraw his name, Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) disclosed after Thursday’s vote.

“John Tower repeatedly offered the President the opportunity to abandon this fight and George Bush refused to do so and it was the right thing to do,” Wilson said. “It was important not only to vindicate John Tower but let the American people know the truth.”

Republican senators commonly laid responsibility on Nunn for making Tower the ninth Cabinet nominee in history to be defeated in the Senate--and the first of a President’s initial round of nominees.

“This was made a personal matter by Sen. Nunn,” Wilson said. " . . . A number of Democratic colleagues admitted privately (that) they yielded to arm-twisting . . . and said that this has become a test of personal allegiance to the chairman.”

Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) added: “When Sen. Nunn came down the other way, the others all wheeled into line behind him. Sam Nunn was the key--he gave the others cover.”

Democrats likewise credited Nunn, who has built a reputation for a nonpartisan approach to defense issues, with holding the fractious party together.

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“A lot of individuals based their decision on the fact that Sam Nunn took the position that he did,” said Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.)

Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.) said that Majority Leader Mitchell did not strong-arm the Democrats into line. “He said: ‘I want them to make up their owns minds,’ ” Exon said. “ ‘I hope they tell me when they do.’ ”

But, after the Armed Service Committee’s strictly party-line vote against Tower, Mitchell worked with Nunn to persuade uncommitted Democrats to fall into line.

Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) said that it was only after senators began inspecting the FBI report on Tower’s history of drinking and womanizing--a report that was carefully guarded in a fourth-floor room in the Capitol accessible only to senators--that a pattern of Democratic opposition began to emerge. “That’s when things began to gel,” Simon said.

Intensive Fight

At the White House, meanwhile, Bush returned from his Asian trip and plunged into an intensive fight to win over a few undecided Democrats.

“You can lose a battle like this in the court of public opinion and grass-roots lobbying, but you can’t win it that way,” a senior Bush adviser said. “The President has to win it.”

Among the senators on the early White House list of likely Democratic prospects were Bob Graham of Florida and David L. Boren of Oklahoma. When the Senate rejected former President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987, Boren was one of two Democrats who voted for him.

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But Boren quickly announced his opposition to Tower, and so did Graham.

By the beginning of this week, the White House was focusing on the handful of still-uncommitted Democrats. Those included Pell and two freshmen, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Charles S. Robb of Virginia, who would be casting their first major votes on Tower’s nomination.

All three voted against him. The only three Democrats who supported Tower were Heflin, who surprised the White House with his announcement Monday; Dodd, who noted that Tower had supported his father, also a senator, when the Senate censured him in 1967, and Bentsen, Tower’s fellow Texan.

“I don’t think the President turned a vote,” a senior Bush adviser said. “Bentsen and Dodd were going to go for Tower, and Heflin seems to have reached an independent judgment.

‘Test of Loyalty’

“It got down to a test of loyalty in the Senate--George Mitchell and Sam Nunn versus George Bush and John Tower, and George Mitchell and Sam Nunn started with 55 (Democratic) votes.”

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, who had been Bush’s chief rival for last year’s Republican presidential nomination, became the chief strategist of the drive to confirm Tower. He met almost daily with White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and conferred with him regularly by phone.

But in the end, the one Republican who defected was Kassebaum, Dole’s fellow Kansan. Her vote came as a pleasant surprise to the Democrats, but she had given Bush the news two days earlier.

“We recognized that she’s an independent person who doesn’t respond well to lobbying by anybody, not even Bob Dole,” a White House adviser said.


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