Helms Scolds His Colleagues On Weld Nomination
Senator rebuffs a challenge to his authority; nomination looks deader than ever
By Craig Staats/AllPolitics
WASHINGTON (Sep. 12) -- Sen. Jesse Helms, obviously angry, today scolded his Foreign Relations Committee colleagues for pushing for a hearing for William Weld as ambassador to Mexico, and said he won't bend under the pressure.
Helms, poking the air with his finger for emphasis, accused his colleagues of challenging his authority as chairman, and cited congressional statistics that 154 nominations have died without a hearing in the past decade -- and under Democratic chairmen, too. (320K wav sound)
A combative Helms declared that if Weld, also a Republican, wants to start a war between the GOP moderates and conservatives, "Let him try." (288K wav sound)
At the start, Helms said the sole purpose of the meeting "will be to discuss a history of countless failed nominations in the past 10 years which were denied hearings by the chairman or the ranking member."
A respectful Sen. Joseph Biden, the committee's ranking Democrat, told Helms he was clearly within his rights to control the special meeting and the debate. But Biden said he knew of no instance where a majority of a committee wanted a hearing on a nomination, and the chairman blocked it. "I think we're making a mistake here," Biden said.
Biden said the committee's job "is to give the Senate our considered opinion. The Constitution says that the Senate will give its advice and consent, not a committee."
Helms won't budge
Helms, though, refused to budge and accused both the news media and Weld of misstatements in attempts to force a hearing. "I've never seen such a barrage of misstatements of fact, or such a collection of idle speculation, mostly erroneous, but published as fact," Helms said.
The North Carolina Republican, whose nickname is "Senator No," offered charts showing previous nominations that had died without a hearing, and quashed all attempts at an open discussion.
When Helms criticized Sen. Richard Lugar, a fellow Republican who had forced today's meeting by invoking a little-used Senate rule, Sen. Paul Wellstone interrupted and asked Helms to give Lugar a chance to respond, out of fairness.
"Yes, you've been fair," Helms shot back sarcastically.
The chairman accused Weld of going on a weekend TV news show "without the foggiest notion of what he was talking about" to suggest it was rare for presidential nominees not to get a hearing.
In all, the 30-minute committee meeting was an ugly, brittle display of power politics that did nothing to boost the Senate's image. Afterward, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said it was "the first time I have felt ashamed to be a member of the body."
Clinton still wants a hearing
At the White House, President Bill Clinton reiterated that Weld deserves a hearing. "He's been a good governor, he was a distinguished
member of the Justice Department under President [Ronald] Reagan, and
he's entitled to a hearing," Clinton said. "And I believe if he gets a hearing, he'll be confirmed and he'll be able to go to Mexico, and that's what I'm working for." (384K wav sound)
Helms did reveal that he sought a compromise with the White House last month, offering in a letter to call hearings immediately if Clinton would nominate Weld as ambassador to another country, where drug trafficking is not such a key issue. Helms considers Weld soft on illegal drugs because he has supported the medical use of marijuana and needle exchange programs to reduce the spread of HIV infection.
In the same letter, though, Helms also warned the impasse over Weld could jeopardize other Clinton Administrative initiatives if it continues, a not-so-subtle threat. (352K wav sound)
After the committee meeting, Weld said he is not giving up and Biden suggested the key may be to get Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to change his mind about a hearing. (224K wav sound)
"Look, I shouldn't be so blunt, but I'm going to do it
anyway," Biden told reporters. "Who do you think would likely yield to national pressure. Helms or Lott? What do you think?"
'End this political charade'
Lott, however, suggested once again that Clinton withdraw the nomination and move on.
"I don't believe Mr. Weld's views on drugs are shared by Main Street America," Lott said in a statement. "The challenges Mexico faces and the importance of America's relationship with Mexico demand that the president end this political charade now."
Even before today's meeting, the White House had demanded that Helms and Lott explain why they won't grant Weld a hearing. Weld has said the American people ought to be outraged. (256K wav sound)
Earlier, he said the idea that a decision on a major ambassadorial nomination should be made by one person, without open discussion or a fair hearing is "a very un-American notion."
So far, Clinton has been careful not to directly challenge the powerful chairman and he was circumspect in his comments again today. But White House sources say if Helms doesn't give ground, the president is prepared to join the fray personally.
Weld's allies are making it a fight about fairness, suggesting Helms is being undemocratic in refusing to discuss Weld at today's meeting. They hope it puts him in an unfavorable public spotlight and persuades him to hold a confirmation hearing.
In Other News:
Friday Sept. 12, 1997
Helms Scolds His Colleagues On Weld Nomination
Jesse Helms Pulls No Punches, No Surprises
Senate Panel Briefed On Possible China Connection
Clinton Names Satcher As Surgeon General
Bad, Good News For Gore
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Special Meeting
Senators Make Remarks After S.F.R.C. Meeting
Clinton Nominates Satcher For Surgeon General
White House Regular News Briefing