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Senate Scrutiny May Rattle Lungren's Confidence

February 15, 1988|LEO C. WOLINSKY | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Rep. Daniel E. Lungren has always been a confident man.

So it was with a sense of unshakable optimism that the Long Beach Republican accepted Gov. George Deukmejian's nomination to be state treasurer--remarking at one point that he could no more contemplate the possibility of defeat than could an athlete facing a big game.

In recent weeks, however, the news out of both houses of the Legislature has been discouraging at best for the governor's nominee. With the Senate confirmation hearings set to begin on Tuesday, Democrats who control the upper house are preparing to give Lungren plenty of reason to question his confidence.

A recent survey by top Senate Democrats indicated that as many as 19 already have made up their minds to vote against Lungren or are leaning that way. That is only two shy of the 21 votes needed to reject him in the 40-member house, where 24 of the members are Democrats.

Senate GOP Leader Ken Maddy of Fresno predicted that the chances of confirmation could hinge on as little as one vote. "I think it's going to be close," Maddy said, adding he has not heard of any Democrat who even is leaning toward Lungren. "The Democrats have imposed an extremely good code of silence. I've never seen anything like it."

If there were a 20-20 tie, Democratic Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy could break the deadlock. Senate Democratic floor leader Barry Keene of Benicia said this scenario is possible because there are "about five Democrats who are undecided and probably won't make up their minds until after the hearings."

Deukmejian remains outwardly optimistic, saying he is "not yet" ready to concede defeat in the Senate. "I'm confident he'll get confirmed. I'm relying on the fairness and the objectivity of enough of the senators I have respect for," the governor told The Times last week.

But Deukmejian also acknowledged he had become "disturbed" over the way the opposition is taking shape. "I'm not saying I expect every Democrat to vote to confirm every single person that I name," he said. "But I do think, you know, they should have some very good sound reasons for voting against--and not just voting against the person because I proposed him."

Some Democrats, the governor said, began taking shots at Lungren even though they "hadn't even met the man, hadn't even talked to him, hadn't even found out anything about him."

In a demonstration of their willingness to do battle with the governor, Senate Democrats in the last month rejected two of Deukmejian's appointees because of what they said were philosophical disagreements and are threatening to do the same to a third nominee.

One Republican insider who asked to remain anonymous characterized those votes as "almost like a test to see how far (Senate Democrats) can go. To the extent that this is allowed to continue, it tends to embolden them."

Stirring up the political caldron even more has been a steady drumbeat of harsh rhetoric from Democratic leader Keene, who has called Lungren a "disaster for women" because of his opposition to federal family planning grants. Keene compared Lungren to James Watt, President Reagan's controversial former interior secretary, and publicly derided his nomination as the governor's "payoff to the ultra-right of his party."

"I believe we will reject him in the Senate," Keene confidently predicted. In a recent interview he also acknowledged Democratic fears that Deukmejian is trying to build Lungren into a political star with a far-right agenda.

Added Keene: "My instincts are very strong that this is all part of a scenario to provide for a successor to Deukmejian that fits a certain description, ultra-right, young, smart and politically capable."

Ironically, Deukmejian in his interview with The Times, used almost the same words to explain his perception of the growing opposition to his nominee.

Democrats, he said, realize Lungren is "a very capable, very bright, very articulate, attractive individual and I suspect that the opposition is really that they're concerned he may become a major political figure in California." Playing against this backdrop is a strong disagreement between the governor and the Legislature's top Democrats over the mechanics of confirming or rejecting Lungren.

Citing legal opinions by Democratic Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp and the Legislature's own lawyer, these Democrats say Lungren can be defeated if one house or the other votes to reject him or if a motion to confirm Lungren falls short of a majority.

Deukmejian, however, believes Lungren may take office unless he is rejected by both houses of the Legislature. He also maintains that his nominee cannot be defeated merely because a motion to confirm him falls short of a majority, but only if a majority of lawmakers in both houses actually cast votes against him.

Effect of Ruling

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