In a vote critics charged was as much about the ambitions of presidential candidates as it was abortion, the Senate Wednesday failed to cut off a filibuster against the confirmation of surgeon general nominee Henry Foster, all but ending the chances of a man whose history of performing the procedures was widely believed to have doomed him from the start.
After three hours of contentious debate, the tally was 57-43. Eleven Republicans, some of whom oppose Foster, joined all 46 Democrats in supporting the Nashville, Tenn., doctor’s right to a straight up or down vote on his nomination.
But they came three votes shy of the 60 needed to stop debate - a coup engineered by Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, a GOP presidential contender who led the filibuster, and supported by his rival, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., who strategically delayed bringing the vote to the floor until it was apparent the filibuster would succeed.
Democrats have a second chance to stop debate today, but many appeared painfully glum about the prospects of winning Republican converts. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a key leader in the floor fight over the nomination, said simply that it would “be tough - very tough.”
At least five Republicans, including Mark Hatfield of Oregon, have been targeted for intense lobbying by the Democrats. But even Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., putting the best face on his party’s chances, conceded that his colleagues were hanging their best hopes on an empathetic public. “We think they will express themselves. … They will start calling,” he said.
President Clinton immediately assailed the vote as a “disservice to democracy.” In the Rose Garden with Foster by his side, he joined in the angry cry of senators who had charged during debate that the Nashville obstetrician-gynecologist had become a victim in an ugly political drama that had little to do with his qualifications.
“A strong majority - 57 - voted to give him a fair chance and a full vote,” Clinton said. “But a small minority are using this nomination to dictate a litmus test to the rest of America. That is wrong.”
“Make no mistake about it, this was not a vote about the right of the president to choose a surgeon general,” said Clinton. “This was really a vote about every American woman’s right to choose.”
Others were even more pointed in their analysis of what happened. And for a while, the Senate was a den of dissension, with supporters of Foster fuming that presidential politics had unfairly ruled the day.
Sen. Wendell H. Ford of Kentucky, the Democrats’ deputy floor leader, said that while he would not vote to confirm Foster, the Senate should invoke cloture and vote on the merits of the nomination.
“I refuse to become a pawn in Senator Gramm’s presidential politics,” Ford said. “This cloture vote has presidential one-upmanship written all over it, and it does a disservice to the American public.” Wednesday’s vote, he said, was “the first Republican primary.”
Opponents defended their votes as grounded in solid, moral judgments, though, saying Foster had been neither candid nor credible. The White House first indicated he had performed one abortion, then revised that figure to about a dozen, then he acknowledgied he had performed 39 abortions over his four decades as a doctor. Some analysts said Wednesday that the key contenders have used the nomination so skillfully that all but Foster himself can take some satisfaction from the fight.
“This is a win-win-win situation for each of the candidates - Gramm, Dole and Clinton … and it’s a lose situation for Dr. Foster and, I think, for our country,” said Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University.
Indeed, the 61-year-old doctor, after a grueling five months of public scrutiny and attack, has been left “to twist in the wind,” Wayne added.
Dole of Kansas, the majority leader, scored the major political victory, showing conservative Republicans and anti-abortion groups that he could quash the nomination they vehemently opposed. In the process, he outfoxed his principal rival, Gramm, who had sought to lead the anti-Foster effort by announcing he would stage a filibuster.
The price Dole exacted from Foster supporters for bringing up the nomination at all was a unanimous consent agreement by which two cloture votes would be held in rapid succession. Under normal procedures, with the debate beginning on Wednesday, the first cloture vote would have been today and the second on Monday. That might have enabled supporters to put more pressure on some senators. But if Dole had not counted the votes carefully, he would not have scheduled a vote at all, as he had once threatened.
“We got it done,” Dole chortled later, “even though Gramm was out of town” on Monday, when the majority leader started the maneuvering that led to Wednesday’s quick vote.
Gramm, whose campaign had been faltering, showed his socially conservative credentials, Wayne said.
Clinton wins, he said, because unlike with some others such as Lani Guinier and Zoe Baird, he stood up for this nomination - which is particularly important because of its symbolic appeal to blacks highly skeptical of him.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and other defenders of Foster, who won a “Point of Light” from former President Bush for his efforts to combat teenage pregnancy, said they only hoped that before today’s vote, the public would express its dismay at the way Foster had been maligned by opponents who said he did not represent mainstream values.
Democrats noted that when their party controlled the Senate throughout the Reagan years, a host of controversial nominees - Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former Judge Robert Bork, Secretary of Defense-designate John Tower, Interior Secretary James Watt - were given up-or-down votes without filibusters.
Foster, said Sen. Carol MoseleyBraun, D-Ill., had been subjected to “trial by excoriation.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: HOW THEY VOTED Here is how Northwest senators voted Wednesday in an attempt to close debate on the nomination of Dr. Henry Foster to be surgeon general. A “yes” vote is a vote to end the filibuster. Idaho. Larry Craig, R, no; Dirk Kempthorne, R, no. Montana. Max Baucus, D, yes; Conrad Burns, R, no. Oregon. Mark Hatfield, R, no; Bob Packwood, R, yes. Washington. Slade Gorton, R, yes; Patty Murray, D, yes.