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In Labor Nominee Hearing, Labor Gets Back Seat

Politics: Senate panel is expected to focus on Alexis Herman's past business dealings, fund-raising. GOP aide says she'll get 'roughed up,' then confirmed.

March 18, 1997|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.) drew up a list of more than 100 questions for President Clinton's labor secretary-designate last month, he insisted his aim was to focus the nomination hearings of Alexis Herman on her approach to the job, not her past business dealings or her role in the fund-raising scandal engulfing the administration.

Yet one after the other, Jeffords' questions concerned Herman's behavior as a private-sector consultant and, later, as a key political aide to first the Democratic National Committee and then the White House. With those questions answered, Jeffords maintained, GOP lawmakers would turn their attention to Herman's views on labor and workplace matters.

But it's not likely to turn out that way.

In the end, Herman, 49, is widely expected to win Senate confirmation following hearings that begin today before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, chaired by Jeffords. Even one of Herman's early detractors--Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.)--appears ready to back her.

"There may be a lot of smoke, but . . . she'll probably squeak through," said a GOP Senate aide, who added that Republicans have failed to find an infraction serious enough to deny Herman the job. "She'll get a little roughed up, but she'll make it."

But even as they move closer to confirming her, lawmakers' persistent focus on Herman's political and business dealings is likely to keep them from learning much about her priorities as the Clinton administration's point person on labor and workplace issues.

They know that Herman, who is black, has been a key administration liaison to the African American community and is a firm supporter of affirmative-action policies, which have been under attack on Capitol Hill. And they know she is a committed advocate for women in the workplace, having been director of the Labor Department's Women's Bureau during the Carter administration.

Republican senators also know that Herman--unlike Robert B. Reich, the liberal academic she would replace at the Labor Department--is a pragmatist, a political operative they will likely find it easier to work with on policy matters. As director of the White House Office of Public Liaison, Herman met regularly with business leaders to forge their support for administration policies.

But it is precisely that political background, in the minds of many GOP lawmakers, that has made Herman so vulnerable to questions that could tie her to the Clinton administration's questionable fund-raising practices.

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"This has become mostly about politics because she's a political choice," said one Republican staff member on Capitol Hill. In Herman, the president appears to have rewarded a longtime political lieutenant, the aide said, not an ideological crusader. "If Clinton had picked a clone [of Reich], you might see more of a discussion of policy."

Indeed, Herman won the nomination over former Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.), an ardent liberal. A Wofford nomination would have spared the administration the embarrassment of a nomination mired in the widening fund-raising scandal. But it would have prompted a testy exchange over the government's role in always-simmering labor disputes.

As it is, GOP senators--led by Jeffords, Susan Collins of Maine and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire--are expected to grill Herman on her role in organizing White House events that set the stage for later one-on-one fund-raising appeals by the Democratic National Committee.

They also are expected to question her on business decisions she made as she left the Labor Department at the end of the Carter administration. At that point, Herman and a future business associate--also a Labor Department official--dispersed contracts to firms that in turn hired the consulting company she established after leaving the government.

Herman also has faced questions--and will do so again today--about her decision to continue work as an affirmative-action consultant at a time when she also held the post of DNC chief of staff. In 1990, Herman's firm won a $600,000 contract to advise a partnership of construction companies on minority hiring in connection with a major federal office complex in Washington.

But both critics and friends of Herman say that while the juxtaposition of Herman's political and business activities may raise ethical questions, they are probably both legal and common among mid- and high-level government officials and political operatives.

"Most people in high government positions cross the boundary between business and government, and that's one thing that enhances their experience and reputation," said Yvonne Scruggs of the Black Leadership Forum, which has been lobbying for Herman's confirmation.

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