The Senate confirmed San Francisco gay activist Roberta Achtenberg to be the nation's top fair housing official Monday, rejecting conservative complaints that her sexual politics rendered her unfit for federal office.
Winding up an impassioned debate over gay rights, the Senate voted 58 to 31 to confirm Achtenberg as the first openly declared lesbian to serve in high federal office.
Both sides agreed it was a milestone. "Roberta Achtenberg has broken down a wall and made it possible for future nominees to be judged on the merits" instead of prejudice, said Gregory King, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a gay rights lobbying group.
The Senate was "crossing a threshold" in which those who "promote a lifestyle most Americans would consider immoral" can be appointed to high public office, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) said in arguing against the nomination.
Although Achtenberg's confirmation never appeared in doubt, conservative Republicans led by Helms had sought to delay the nomination in the hopes of winning support from Southern Democrats and other Republicans uncomfortable with her record of activism on behalf of gay rights.
The result was one of the most bitter and emotionally intense floor debates in recent memory as the Senate grappled, passionately though at times awkwardly, with the issue of gay rights in America.
In the end, five Southern Democrats jumped the aisle and joined with 26 Republicans in opposing the confirmation of the 42-year-old San Francisco city supervisor to be assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The majority that voted for Achtenberg--the most controversial thus far of President Clinton's second-tier nominees--included 45 Democrats and 13 Republicans.
Helms had sought to rally the conservative opposition by portraying Achtenberg as a militant activist whose past efforts to pressure the Boy Scouts of America into reversing a ban on homosexual Scoutmasters meant that she would bring an extremist political agenda to her new post.
But Helms' attacks on Achtenberg--he was quoted at one point in the debate as telling a reporter he could not vote for "a damn lesbian"--clearly embarrassed even some of his conservative allies, who repeatedly sought to draw a distinction between Achtenberg's homosexuality and her controversial opposition to the Boy Scouts' ban on homosexuals.
"No doubt we should show tolerance and respect for those among us who are gay," said Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who voted against Achtenberg. "But showing tolerance and respect should not force us to embrace an ideological agenda most Americans do not accept."
Helms charged that the gay rights lobby bought Achtenberg's nomination with $5 million in contributions to Clinton's election campaign, and other critics cited Achtenberg's confrontation with the Boy Scouts as an example of what they called her abuse of public office.
As a San Francisco supervisor, Achtenberg tried to persuade the city to withdraw its deposits with the Bank of America because of its support for the Boy Scouts.
"Some might call these tactics heavy-handed . . . even borderline extortion," Dole said. "We're not talking about some youth gang, the Bloods and the Crips. . . . We're talking about the Boy Scouts!"
Achtenberg's defenders dismissed these objections as attempts to hide what they said was the conservatives' real objection to the nomination.
"The real issue," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said, is whether "the United States Senate should vote down a nomination without regard to a candidate's overwhelming qualifications simply because she is gay."
The five Southern Democrats who voted against Achtenberg included Sens. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, Harlan Mathews and Jim Sasser of Tennessee and Richard C. Shelby of Alabama.
With tensions on the floor mounting after more than two days of fiercely emotional debate, all eyes were on another conservative Southern Democrat, however.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the most prominent Senate critic of Clinton's efforts to lift the ban on gays in the military, had not indicated to anyone how he planned to vote.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) immediately intercepted Nunn as he arrived on the floor and they exchanged a few whispered words as another Achtenberg supporter, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), watched anxiously.
A moment later, Mitchell turned away smiling, Nunn gave a thumbs up gesture to the chair to indicate he was voting yes and Boxer rushed up to clasp his hands in gratitude.