A Senate committee approved Henry Foster’s nomination as surgeon general Friday as Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas renewed his intention to block the appointment with a Senate filibuster.
The 9-7 endorsement by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee was a remarkable turnaround for a nomination that seemed to have little chance of success as recently as last month.
Two Republicans, Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont and freshman Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, joined the panel’s seven Democrats in recommending Senate approval for Foster, whose record on abortion came into question.
Among the seven committee Republicans voting against Foster was Slade Gorton of Washington, who said Foster was too divisive and had attempted to “demonize” political opponents with harsh rhetoric about “white right-wing extremists” and about minority nominees being “under siege.” The White House has said Foster “misspoke” and had not intended to use the word “white.”
Although the committee action was a major milestone for Foster, the Nashville physician still faces some formidable obstacles. Gramm, who has been courting Christian conservatives and anti-abortion activists in his presidential campaign, has promised to block a Senate vote with a filibuster.
The Texan’s threat to engage in non-stop talk against the nomination would tie up Senate action unless 60 of the 100 senators vote to cut Gramm off.
“I intend to oppose the nomination of Dr. Foster vigorously,” Gramm said after the committee vote. “To win, the Clinton administration will have to convince at least 60 senators to support this nomination.”
Foster’s supporters criticized Gramm’s hardball tactics. Filibusters are rarely used to block presidential appointments under the theory that nominees deserve an up-or-down vote by the full Senate.
In a passionate defense of Foster, Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., lashed out at Gramm’s filibuster threat, noting that many Democrats had opposed the Supreme Court nominations of former Judge Robert Bork and Justice Clarence Thomas, but made no attempt to deny them a floor vote. Thomas was confirmed; Bork was not.
‘I’ve been here 11 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Simon said of Gramm’s filibuster threat. “When you get elected to the United States Senate, you have a series of certain obligations and in this instance it is a vote up or down.”
In another complication for Foster, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, who controls the Senate agenda, has hinted that he may not schedule a vote on the appointment. Dole, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, wants to meet with Foster before deciding his next move.
Still, most senators expect the dispute to reach the Senate floor early next month. Gorton does not support a filibuster.
President Clinton, who nominated Foster to replace former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders in February, urged his potential rivals to clear the way for Senate action.
“I look forward to going on to the next stage,” the president said. “It would be unusual and unwarranted if this fine man were denied his day in court in the Senate.”
Gramm contends that Foster, 61, is too controversial to serve as the government’s chief spokesman on public health issues. The Nashville physician and his White House allies compounded Foster’s political problems by providing misleading information about his experience with abortion.
The White House initially said that Foster had performed one abortion. The figure was later revised to “fewer than a dozen,” and, finally, 39.