It was American democracy on full display, and it was not pretty.
With all the civility of a college food fight, the crusty chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, R-N.C., squared off Friday against William Weld - an aloof, former Massachusetts governor who wants to be ambassador to Mexico - in a verbal slugfest that began with a brief committee hearing and later spilled into the hallways outside.
By the time the dust had settled, Weld’s nomination seemed headed exactly where Helms wanted it to go: nowhere. Indeed, unless either Helms or Sen. Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who has backed Helms throughout, retreat, Friday’s confrontation appeared to doom one of the most bizarre campaigns for an ambassadorship in the history of the Republic.
Talking to reporters in the Oval Office after the meeting ended, President Clinton insisted “the battle is not over yet,” and urged the full Senate to find some way to circumvent Helms and act. Yet without a groundswell of public outrage, it seems highly unlikely a majority of the Senate would act against the majority leader.
On Friday, Lott reiterated his call for the president to withdraw Weld’s nomination.
So far, the confrontation has had considerable fallout. In showcasing the capacity of a lone senator to deny even a hearing to a presidential nominee, it has given American democracy a black eye. The dispute also has damaged the administration’s carefully nurtured working relationship with Helms, a conservative who opposes key elements of Clinton’s foreign policy agenda.
In the process, America remains without an ambassador to one of its most important partner countries, and the Republicans appear to be in the midst of an unseemly internal squabble.
And Weld, who some believe has used the campaign to give himself a national political profile for a future presidential bid, in the end may be smiling quietly to himself.
Friday’s events marked the culmination of a fight that began earlier this summer when Weld - despite signs of disapproval from Helms - answered Clinton’s nomination by announcing he would give up his job as governor of Massachusetts to become America’s man in Mexico City.
Helms, citing Weld’s liberal views on the medicinal use of marijuana, vowed he never would let someone who was “soft” on drugs become ambassador to Mexico, a country that is a major conduit for drugs into the United States.
Weld countered that Helms was engaging in “ideological extortion,” and vowed to fight. After weeks of political jostling, a majority of Helms’ 19-member committee earlier this week signed a letter that forced him to call Friday’s meeting.
It is one of the Founding Fathers’ many checks and balances that requires the president to receive Senate approval for all ambassadorial appointments.
But instead of a hearing on Weld’s nomination, the session turned into a civics lesson on the power of Senate committee chairmen. Under Senate rules, a majority of committee members may be able to force a meeting, but it is the chairman who determines the meeting’s agenda, its length and who speaks.
Helms made the most of his considerable powers.
After yielding briefly to the committee’s ranking Democrat, Joe Biden of Delaware, who argued for a hearing on Weld’s nomination, Helms kept the floor to make his own case. He first lambasted media coverage of the affair, charging it had created a “circus atmosphere,” and then announced that the sole purpose of the meeting would be to refute accusations that his refusal to give Weld a hearing was unprecedented.
He went on to attack his Republican colleague Richard Lugar of Indiana, whose open opposition to Helms and demands for a hearing helped force the meeting. When Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., asked Helms quietly, “Could I just ask you one question,” Helms responded, “No sir.” When Kerry began again, he got out only the words, “But we …,” before Helms slammed the chairman’s gavel to the table, demanding order.
Several minutes later, Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., suffered a similar fate. Breaking in as Helms attacked Lugar, Wellstone asked if Lugar should have the right to respond.
“No,” Helms barked.
Weld, who observed the committee’s business from the gallery, spoke to reporters after the 30-minute meeting.
“It seemed almost that the chairman was set on a course to prove that the United States Senate is a despotic institution,” he charged, predicting that such an effort “is bound ultimately to fail.”
He indicated he had no plans to withdraw his nomination and would try to appeal directly to the public to build pressure to win a hearing.
Many Senate observers believe Weld - with his defiant responses to Helms - cost himself much-needed support. In July, he openly attacked Helms at a news conference.
Later, he described his fight for a hearing as a war.
“What Mr. Weld seems to be threatening is that unless his nomination to Mexico is moved, he will begin a war within the Republican Party,” Helms said. “Let him try. I have been tempted to say - but haven’t - that I do not yield to ideological extortion.”
Political analysts have speculated that such a head-on confrontation with a conservative Republican was a calculated move on Weld’s part to stake his claim as a spokesman for the party’s liberal wing in the run-up to the next presidential campaign.
Helms’ staff Friday released a letter to Clinton written last month in which Helms seemed to offer a compromise, saying he was prepared to schedule hearings for Weld to serve as ambassador to any country not linked to the drug trade. A Helms staff member said that India was discussed briefly, but that Weld insisted on Mexico.