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Foster to Begin 3-Part Test on Senate Floor : Nominee: Final battle opens today on surgeon general post. If votes to end debate succeed, Clinton's choice could win confirmation.


WASHINGTON — The politically charged battle over the nomination of Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr. as surgeon general faces a potential make-or-break showdown vote today in a sharply divided Senate.

It is unclear if either side has the necessary votes either to confirm him or deny him the post. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) agreed Tuesday after three hours of debate on the nomination that the Senate will vote at 9 a.m. PDT today on cutting off further debate. If that vote does not get the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture and end debate, a second cloture vote will take place Thursday.

If either vote limits debate, the Senate will be able to vote on the controversial nomination. To be confirmed, Foster needs a majority vote. However, if there are not 60 votes to invoke cloture, the nomination will be shelved, according to both Dole and Daschle.

As they made their announcement, Foster's supporters and critics engaged in furious behind-the-scenes lobbying amid considerable suspense over the outcome of today's vote. For Foster's backers to win the vote to end debate, at least 14 Republican senators must join the expected 46 Democrats in voting to cut off a filibuster.

"I think we're within reach. It's a winnable vote," Daschle said. He added that he believes many Republican senators may vote to end debate even if they may not necessarily vote for confirmation.

Foster, 61, is a Nashville, Tenn., obstetrician whose efforts to combat teen-age pregnancy earned him a "point of light" under a program begun by the George Bush Administration to recognize volunteer efforts. But his nomination became embroiled almost immediately over his faulty recollections of the number of abortions he had performed during his career.

After Foster gave conflicting numbers, many GOP senators accused him of being less than candid and said that they would oppose his nomination on the grounds of credibility.

Chief among them was Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), a candidate for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination. He has repeatedly vowed to lead a filibuster, if necessary, to kill Foster's nomination.

Gramm's aggressive stance not only has endeared him to the GOP's conservative wing but also has exerted strong pressure on Dole, also a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, to do likewise. Gaining the support of the GOP conservative wing is critical in winning the party's presidential nomination.

But, Daschle in a plea to Dole and Gramm, said: "This ought not be the first Republican primary."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), an ardent Foster champion, said that it would be unfortunate if Foster is "sacrificed for some hidden agenda."

"This is about a woman's right to choose. This is about keeping government out of the private lives of the women of this country and should we punish a doctor who, in the course of his practice, protected that right," Boxer added.

Foster narrowly won the recommendation of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee last month. He met with Dole Monday. "We had a good discussion," Dole said Tuesday.

But sources said that both Dole and Gramm were strongly urging their GOP colleagues to vote against cutting off debate.

"I believe we have 41 votes to stop this nomination," Gramm told reporters. "I'm going to work hard right up until these votes are cast."

Several Democratic senators, all Foster supporters, publicly urged Dole and Gramm to set aside their jockeying for the party's presidential nomination. They said that Foster deserves a fair hearing and a vote in the Senate. They also said that the vote will amount to a Senate referendum on abortion rights.

"A woman's right to choose; it's plain and simple. That's what the vote is all about," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

According to wire service reports, 8 to 10 Republican senators either have said that they intend to vote for cloture or are leaning toward doing so.

Daschle conceded that Democrats would have preferred more time to try to round up the necessary votes.

"I don't know that he knows whether he has the votes or not," Daschle said of Dole. "I suspect he thinks he does."

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