The No. 2 Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Sunday he is willing to defy Chairman Jesse Helms to try to force a hearing on William F. Weld’s nomination as ambassador to Mexico.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., said Helms, R-N.C., “cannot be dictatorial ultimately when a majority of the committee, a majority of the Senate and a majority of the American people want action.” Helms, who has refused to hold a hearing, opposes Weld’s becoming ambassador because he believes his fellow Republican is too soft on drugs to serve in a country heavily involved in narcotics trafficking.
Lugar’s comments on ABC’s “This Week” portend another escalation in a nomination fight that the politically moderate Weld has vowed to turn into a “land war” against the powerful conservative chairman. Lugar said the nomination fight is causing “civil war in the Republican Party.”
Weld “has the right to be heard, so that his views are clarified and so that Mexicans have a pretty good idea of what they’re getting,” Lugar said. It’s important to committee members, said Lugar, “to have the right to vote, to have the right to discuss Gov. Weld. That is our prerogative.”
Lugar, a former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Helms are rivals who have crossed swords on other issues, most recently the United Nations reform bill.
“Sen. Helms is not going to let his committee be turned into a political circus,” committee spokesman Marc Thiessen said Sunday. “Weld has inappropriately turned an ambassadorial nomination into a battle for the soul of the Republican Party.”
Helms told the News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., that he would not respond to Weld’s high-profile campaign for the job. “I’m not calling Weld a skunk,” he told the newspaper. “I’m not going to pick up his challenge.”
A majority of the committee - for example, all eight Democrats and two Republicans - could force a hearing on the nomination, but the chairman could still refuse to hold a vote. Another maneuver under Senate rules would allow a committee member to move the issue to the Senate floor, but it would be subject to filibuster and require the support of Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. Lott has said he will not challenge Helms on the nomination.
The White House has said it would be willing to send Weld to India instead of Mexico and Helms has said he would support that.
Weld, a prospective presidential contender in the year 2000, resigned as Massachusetts governor last week to fight for his nomination.
Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, D-Mass., who intends to run for governor, quoted his movie star relative, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in commenting on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday about Weld’s decision.
“I can’t believe that somebody would give up what I consider to be the best job in America - to be governor of the state of Massachusetts - to go off to Mexico. But in the words of my cousin-in-law Arnold, you know, ‘Hasta la vista, baby.”’