WASHINGTON — William J. Bennett, who will head the nation's war on drugs, sought Friday to soothe congressional ire raised by his exclusion from the Bush Cabinet, emphasizing in courtesy calls on Capitol Hill and in an interview that he is "happy" with his status.
Displeasure with the arrangement surfaced anew Thursday when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., author of the bill that created the Cabinet-level post, voiced concern that the drug coordinator "be equal to all other Cabinet members."
But Bennett, who learned just before the new Administration's first Cabinet meeting that he would not have a regular seat at the table, said the President has made clear that he will be given power sufficient for the job.
In an interview with The Times, the former education secretary acknowledged that his second-tier status presented a "real issue," saying that, in the drug coordination post, "one must be perceived to have the authority as well as to actually have the authority."
But, Bennett declared: "I have the President's confidence. He has told me so. He has told my colleagues so and he has told the world so."
"The fact that I will not be regularly attending Cabinet meetings is less important than the fact that, when I need to meet with Cabinet officers, I will meet with them," he said.
Another senior federal law enforcement official disagreed, however. "Of course it has an impact," the official said of Bennett's exclusion. "The Cabinet is a symbol, and this means he doesn't have all the horses."
Although Congress has the power to designate Cabinet-level status for a post, the President has the discretion to decide who attends the meetings. In a news conference last week, Bush said that he sees no reason for Bennett to be tied up in discussions of unrelated subjects when he should be concentrating on coordinating the nation's far-flung anti-drug efforts.
Bennett met Friday with Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Strom Thurmond (R-S. C.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), all members of the Judiciary Committee, which will conduct hearings on Bennett's nomination next month.
Biden agreed to delay the hearings until that time at the request of the Administration, which noted that Bennett is expected to fill a brand-new job and that he will be required by law to submit a comprehensive anti-drug strategy within 180 days of taking office.
"In that context," Biden said in a statement, "(Bennett's) request to hold the hearing on March 1 seemed sensible."
The delay in the confirmation process has left other federal agencies with responsibility over drugs--including the Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI--in a state of high anxiety, with officials still unsure about the approach Bennett will take.
Staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story.