White House officials and angry Senate Republicans pressed Thursday for immediate confirmation of Lamar Alexander as secretary of education, suggesting that Democrats are delaying action in a vain search for political dirt on Alexander's investment successes.
Investigators for the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, headed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), have been looking into a series of highly profitable transactions by Alexander, president of the University of Tennessee and a former governor of the state.
Although his nomination as education secretary was widely praised when President Bush announced it on Dec. 17, Alexander has spent much of his time since then answering questions about his finances from Kennedy's panel.
Items under scrutiny include a $569,000 profit that Alexander made without investing a cent, a $320,000 profit that he helped his wife realize on a $10,000 investment, a $795,000 gain in value on a $5,000 investment and $161,000 in consulting and director's fees that Alexander received from a bank that handled University of Tennessee funds.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), declaring that "there is absolutely nothing to suggest wrongdoing" by Alexander, protested in a letter to Kennedy that committee investigators appear to be on a "fishing expedition."
Kennedy denied it, saying in a statement: "The committee is processing the nomination as expeditiously as possible. A number of complex financial transactions are involved, and the committee has a responsibility to the Senate and the country to explore them."
In interviews, Hatch and Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) charged that Democrats are desperate to find some way to undercut Bush's aim to be the "education President."
Hatch said that Democrats, along with education groups that Alexander once defeated in a big merit-pay fight in Tennessee, are trying to "smear him and tar him up" by supplying allegations to the Senate investigators.
"They know he has the potential of being one of the all-time great education secretaries and that he might help Bush be the 'education President,' " Hatch said. "They also know he could be a candidate for the Senate or President himself."
Hatch, the top-ranking Republican on the committee, said he has repeatedly been told by Kennedy over the last three weeks that "all they need is a couple of days to button things down before there's a vote. But they keep asking questions over and over, and (Alexander) answers them over and over. They're even demanding to see his accountant's notes.
"I've seen the answers and read the FBI report, and there is absolutely nothing that justifies holding this up," he said.
Kassebaum, senior Republican on the education subcommittee of Kennedy's panel, said she was "very disturbed that this nomination is taking an unnecessarily tortuous route. I think they (Democrats) see an opportunity to cause a little mischief for the education President."
In pushing for immediate action, the White House has been more delicate than congressional Republicans in suggesting that partisan politics is at work.
"We are concerned that this process not be based purely on partisanship and that there not be any gamesmanship going on," Stephen Hart, a White House spokesman, said. "Certainly, senators have a right to question a candidate, but Alexander has answered all their questions. He ought to be put in that job as soon as possible."
Alexander was not available for comment, but an aide confirmed the accuracy of details about his finances as reported by the Wall Street Journal, which based its article in part on reports he has made to the Office of Government Ethics.
In one deal, the Journal said, Alexander helped arrange the sale of the Knoxville Journal to the Gannett Co. and traded Journal stock he had received at no cost for Gannett securities worth $569,000.
Another transaction involved Alexander, his wife, Leslee, and Christopher Whittle, a communications magnate. According to the Journal, Alexander bought stock in Whittle's company but transferred it to Mrs. Alexander in July, 1988, when he became University of Tennessee president.
Mrs. Alexander had to write a $10,000 check for the stock because Whittle had not cashed Alexander's.
Five months later, Whittle agreed to sell 50% of his company to Time Inc. He bought back Mrs. Alexander's stock for $330,000. He said she got the same deal as other investors and partners, according to the Journal.