Sen. Jesse Helms agreed Tuesday to convene a special meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but flatly refused to consider the nomination of William F. Weld to become ambassador to Mexico.
“The Weld nomination will not be on the agenda of this meeting,” Helms said in a letter to Senator Richard Lugar, the No. 2 Republican on the panel, who initiated the request for the meeting.
Helms’ response caught committee members by surprise and caused confusion among Weld supporters on how to get a confirmation hearing.
“Obviously, the chairman has made it clear, as he has made it clear before, he is not going to put Weld on any agenda,” said Andy Fisher, a spokesman for Lugar. “Having a hearing on the governor being an ambassador is still the important thing.”
Lugar huddled with Senators John F. Kerry and Joseph Biden, Democrat of Delaware, last night to consider their options.
A staff member for a Democrat on the committee said Helms may have won a moral victory by scheduling the meeting and blocking the nomination on his own terms, rather than waiting for a special meeting initiated by Lugar, a longtime rival. It was clear that Lugar had the votes to force a special meeting.
By calling a meeting for Friday morning, Helms complied with Senate rules that allow committee members to force a meeting over objections from the chairman. But Helms simultaneously turned down the expressed purpose of the special session.
“Blocking a hearing will eventually force Senator Helms to defend the indefensible,” Joe Lockhart, a White House spokesman, said after Helms issued his letter. “As the president said today, when the president of the United States nominates someone for an important ambassadorial position, we expect the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to hold a hearing on him.”
A spokesman for Lugar welcomed the meeting but said Helms’s response might be inadequate.
In a three-paragraph letter to Lugar, Helms agreed to hold a special meeting at 11:30 a.m. Friday. But Helms said he had consulted with Senate parliamentarian Robert Dove and was told the chairman retained control over the content of that meeting.
“Sole authority for setting the agenda for this or any other meeting rests with the chairman,” Helms wrote. He also said Dove will be present at Friday’s session.
Earlier, President Clinton called Weld “the best person for the job” and said his nomination represents an attempt to put a bipartisan stamp on US trade policy.