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Senate Rejects Tower Nomination by 53-47 : 1st Defeat for an Original Cabinet Pick

March 10, 1989|SARA FRITZ | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Democratic-controlled Senate dealt President Bush a smashing blow Thursday, rejecting the nomination of former Sen. John Tower as secretary of defense--the first time any American President has been denied one of his original Cabinet choices.

The 53-47 vote culminated six full days of bitter, partisan quarreling on the Senate floor and nearly three months of political turmoil caused by numerous allegations that Tower, 63, a dapper Texan, had been guilty of drunkenness, womanizing and sharing secret insights into U.S.-Soviet arms negotiations with defense contractors.

It was an especially humiliating setback for the President, not only because it came only 48 days after his inauguration, but also because Bush's own lobbying had yielded votes from only three Democratic senators, two of whom owed some personal loyalty to Tower.

Only one Republican--Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas--voted against confirmation.

Both Bush and Tower greeted the defeat with equanimity, each calling for a truce between Congress and the White House. "We owe it to the American people to come together and move forward," the President said.

Reverberations Expected

Tower's defeat was expected to send strong reverberations through the government in the weeks and months ahead--poisoning the general political climate in Congress and coloring many important decisions of national defense to be made at the White House.

"This has been a dirty process," lamented Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), a staunch Tower supporter who like most Republicans said that he was disillusioned by the outcome. "Do I think there will be hard feelings lingering? I do indeed. It's not going to be something that is soon forgotten because it can't be."

Democrats, however, told Bush they deeply regretted the personal and partisan enmity that had been created by the Tower affair and pledged to make amends. "This vote is not and should not be interpreted as a vote to harm the President," stressed Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.).

Not since 1959 when the Senate rejected Lewis Strauss, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's nominee for commerce secretary, has any Cabinet appointee been denied confirmation by the Senate. Moreover, Tower was only the ninth Cabinet nominee in history ever to be rejected.

But what made the loss even more startling was that Tower was rejected by a Senate in which he had served with distinction for 24 years, a Senate known for its chumminess and a Senate where stories of drunkenness and womanizing by members are legend. Indeed, Tower is the first former senator ever to be deprived of a Cabinet role by his former colleagues.

New Nominee Sought

At the White House, Bush quickly turned his attention to finding a new nominee--someone sufficiently qualified to pass muster in the Senate as well as someone whose choice would help to reverse the apparent loss of morale at the Pentagon caused by Tower's defeat.

At least one list of potential candidates was relayed to the White House personnel director, Charles G. Untermeyer, within two hours of the vote, according to a White House source.

Among those believed to be under consideration by Bush are three former defense secretaries, Republicans Donald H. Rumsfeld and James R. Schlesinger and Democrat Harold Brown; Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.); former Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.); former Rep. Jack Edwards (R-Ala.); Donald B. Rice, president of Santa Monica-based RAND Corp.; former Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis, who is now chief executive of Union Pacific Corp.; Energy Secretary James D. Watkins, a former admiral; Martin Marietta chief executive Norman R. Augustine; Alcoa Chairman Paul H. O'Neill, and Brent Scowcroft, Bush's national security adviser.

Bush, who had rejected recommendations to withdraw Tower's nomination before it went down to defeat, also issued a statement expressing gratitude and regret to the defeated nominee and his family. "Instead of the recompense of a grateful nation," he said, "John Tower's lot in the past weeks has been a cruel ordeal."

Pleaded for Support

White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said that Bush never saw the fight as a personal one, even though he had called many wavering senators into the Oval Office over the last two weeks to plead with them to support Tower.

"The important thing is to find the best candidate that's available to the President, a person the President has confidence in, believes can do this job and can move in rapidly under the circumstances," Fitzwater said.

But he added that the President would take his time to make the right choice. "The world will not come to an end if there's not a candidate tomorrow," he said.

The President's admirers on Capitol Hill, such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), praised him for his loyalty to Tower--"a scarce commodity in this town, as we have seen in this process."

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