WASHINGTON — A key Republican senator said Wednesday that he will vote to confirm Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr. as surgeon general, making it increasingly likely that the troubled nomination will survive committee action and be sent to the Senate floor for a vote.
"I am confident in my own mind that you should be approved by this committee," said Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, one of several previously undecided senators on the Labor and Human Resources Committee, during the closing moments of Foster's confirmation hearing.
Jeffords' announcement assured at least a tie vote on the panel, which is dominated, 9 to 7, by Republicans. If that happens, the committee could move the nomination to the floor without an approval recommendation but still recommend that a floor vote take place. The committee is not expected to vote on the nomination for at least two weeks.
The focus now shifts to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who has announced his opposition to Foster and has threatened to block a floor vote on the nomination. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), who is vying with Dole for the GOP presidential nomination, has promised to filibuster the nomination if it reaches the floor.
Dole said Wednesday that "we'll probably address" the fate of the nomination once the full committee acts.
The choice of Foster, who is acting president of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., became controversial days after he was named Feb. 2 to replace Dr. Joycelyn Elders, whom President Clinton had fired Dec. 9.
Questions initially arose about whether Foster had understated the number of abortions he had performed during his nearly 40-year career. At first he said that he had performed fewer than a dozen. Later he said that he had not carefully checked his records and acknowledged that the correct figure was more than three times that number.
Questions also were raised about his performance of hysterectomies many years ago on unconsenting mentally retarded women and also about when he first became aware of a decades-long controversial syphilis study in Tuskeegee, Ala., where available treatment was withheld from infected men. Foster, practicing in Tuskeegee at the time, was an officer of the local medical society.
Jeffords predicted that he would be joined by at least a second Republican, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, and possibly others, including Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, who chairs the committee and also is regarded as a swing vote.
Indeed, Frist, who insisted Wednesday that he is still uncommitted, nevertheless appeared to be leaning toward supporting his fellow physician and Tennessean. Frist jumped in sympathetically on several occasions during Wednesday's proceedings to help Foster field a series of questions about abortion.
Later, when it was his turn to question the nominee, Frist posed a series of rapid-fire queries to Foster that appeared designed to deflect many of the criticisms that have been leveled against him.
After two days of a nearly unflappable performance, Foster finally lost his composure during the final minutes after a series of questions from Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), an announced opponent of the nomination.
Coats raised the possibility that local medical officials, including Foster, had been aware of the syphilis study, which had been sponsored by the federal government, and had chosen to remain silent about it--a posture that would be regarded today as medically unconscionable.
Foster erupted in anger.
"That study was started before I was born, and the government covered it up," Foster said, raising his voice to nearly a shout.
Foster emphatically denied that he had known about the study before 1972, when it was revealed nationally. He told Coats heatedly: "Under oath, incorrect. Wrong, wrong, wrong, sir."
When it was his turn, Frist, a heart and lung surgeon, said that his questions would be for the benefit of the "non-doctors" on the panel.
He then quickly ran down a list of queries related to Foster's involvement in four so-called involuntary sterilizations of severely mentally retarded women and the publication of a research paper that Foster had written reviewing past involuntary hysterectomies.
Frist pointedly asked whether informed consent "consistent with practice at the time" was obtained from the parents of the women he had sterilized. Foster quickly answered yes. Frist asked whether "peer review" procedures, in which other medical researchers examine studies before they are published, were followed. Foster quickly answered yes.
Times staff writers Melissa Healy and Paul Richter contributed to this story.