WASHINGTON — Carol Moseley-Braun, the only African American woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate, was overwhelmingly confirmed by her former colleagues Wednesday to be U.S. ambassador to New Zealand, easily brushing aside the opposition of her old foe Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).
The vote was 96 to 2, with only Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.), who defeated Moseley-Braun in the 1998 election, joining Helms in voting against the Illinois Democrat.
The process, which scarcely touched on the U.S. relationship with New Zealand or the duties of the ambassador, illustrated the competition between two of the Senate's esoteric tribal mores: Former senators are normally confirmed for any appointed position, and a single senator can block, or at least delay for months or years, the confirmation of anybody.
In Moseley-Braun's case, the courtesy to a former senator easily trumped opposition from Helms, even though the North Carolina lawmaker is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which had jurisdiction over the nomination. After delaying the committee's confirmation hearing briefly, Helms boycotted the session, allowing the panel to approve the nomination without difficulty and setting up Wednesday's vote.
In addition to New Zealand, Moseley-Braun will serve as ambassador to the tiny South Pacific island nation of Samoa.
Helms accused Moseley-Braun of "serious ethical wrongdoing." He referred to charges, raised during her reelection race with Fitzgerald, that Moseley-Braun misused leftover campaign contributions and made inappropriate visits to Nigeria at the invitation of that country's brutal dictator, Sani Abacha, who is now dead.
Moseley-Braun's supporters said that the charges were never proved. Helms said that they were never seriously investigated by the Justice Department either.
The new ambassador's backers said that Helms had a more personal reason for opposing the nomination. In 1993, Moseley-Braun waged a successful floor fight against an effort by Helms to renew the trademark of the Daughters of the Confederacy, which featured the Confederate battle flag. Moseley-Braun argued that the flag is a hated symbol of slavery.
"What the American people are witnessing is a successful cover-up of serious ethical wrongdoing," Helms said in a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Helms stalled committee action on the nomination until the White House agreed to turn over thousands of pages of documents about Moseley-Braun. With Helms watching the session on television last Friday, the committee showered bipartisan praise on Moseley-Braun, easily approving the appointment.
In Wellington, New Zealand, Moseley-Braun will preside over the U.S. relationship with one of its oldest allies. After a period of strain a decade ago because of a dispute over U.S. nuclear policy, U.S.-New Zealand ties are again cordial and uncontroversial.
The Ronald Reagan administration expelled New Zealand from a formal alliance with Washington and Australia after the New Zealand government refused to allow U.S. naval ships to make port calls without declaring that they were free of nuclear weapons.
Moseley-Braun will be one of seven African American women currently serving as U.S. ambassadors.