An awkward spot for the president Housekeeper-tax issue arises

June 14, 1993|By Lyle Denniston and Carl M. Cannon | Lyle Denniston and Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton found himself yesterday in the politically awkward position of having to depend upon the enthusiasm of Republicans to embolden him to go ahead with a Supreme Court nomination for Boston Judge Stephen G. Breyer.

There was no word from the president about whether Judge Breyer, who had seemed all but assured of becoming the nominee three days ago, would now be put forward or be cast aside in the controversy over a failure to pay Social Security taxes for a housekeeper.

Top officials were determined not to reveal what Mr. Clinton is planning to do.

With a White House barbecue where roughly 500 reporters were present, White House officials knew they were going to be asked and apparently agreed in advance not to spill the beans.

White House communications director Mark Gearan took the stage and said, "I've had a lot of questions about the Supreme Court, and I have an announcement to make . . . it will not be Judge Wapner [of TV fame]."

In a more serious vein, two high-ranking White House officials stressed, when asked if the president would "stick" with Judge Breyer, that he had not actually chosen Judge Breyer yet. A third top official, asked the same question -- whether the president would "stick" with Judge Breyer -- said, "I wouldn't go too strong on that if I were you."

A White House official said earlier that "nothing has really changed since Friday" -- when Judge Breyer was emerging clearly as Mr. Clinton's preferred choice, but before the judge's tax situation became known publicly. An announcement by the president today on the court vacancy still is a possibility.

That presidential aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, cautioned against speculation that the president would now return to lists of potential nominees to consider others besides Judge Breyer and the only other "finalist," Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt.

Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas, one of Judge Breyer's most visible public supporters for the court seat opening with the retirement of Justice Byron R. White, remained enthusiastic yesterday. "I think he's qualified and would be an excellent justice," Mr. Dole said on CNN's cable TV program "Newsmaker Sunday." The White House indicated it found Mr. Dole's remarks "encouraging."

Democrats concerned

Even so, Mr. Dole in other remarks appeared to be putting the full burden on Mr. Clinton to sell the nomination to the Senate by dispelling any doubts stirred by the judge's tax situation.

Mr. Clinton appeared to be developing the potential of a problem with Senate Democrats, and in particular Democratic liberals. They have begun to fear that a presidential effort to promote Judge Breyer could imply that the president was willing to overlook the tax difficulties of a male nominee when he had not been willing to do so for female nominees.

Sen. Tom Harkin, a liberal Democrat from Iowa, remarked: "It raises some problems, doesn't it?" He said, in an appearance on the NBC-TV broadcast "Meet the Press," "You saw what happened to individuals nominated for the position of attorney general" -- a reference to the two women, corporate lawyer Zoe Baird and federal Judge Kimba Wood, who were in line to become attorney general but lost out amid controversy over their lapses in obeying laws governing domestic help.

Mr. Dole and Democratic senators were warning the president openly yesterday that, if he does go ahead with Judge Breyer as the nominee, he must act personally to convince the nation that there are clear distinctions between the facts surrounding Judge Breyer's maid and the baby-sitters for the children of Ms. Baird and Judge Wood.

Mr. Dole added that he personally saw a distinction between those situations. The judge's part-time housekeeper, he said, was over 65, was already getting a Social Security pension, worked only "a couple of mornings a week" and was not an illegal alien, while the baby-sitters for Ms. Baird and Judge Wood were actually or technically in the country illegally.

"I don't think it's disqualifying" for Judge Breyer to have omitted tax payments for several years, the senator added.

The Senate GOP leader, saying, "I would hope they would go forward with the Breyer nomination," went on to say "there should be one standard" for nominees, and it would be Mr. Clinton's task to show that he was not following a double standard.

If the administration can successfully show that the Breyer situation is actually different, Mr. Dole said, "then I am prepared to support the nomination, and I think other Republicans are, too."

The Democratic leader in the Senate, George Mitchell Jr. of Maine, echoed Mr. Dole's comment that the tax situation should not rule out Judge Breyer as a court nominee. "I don't think that, by itself, is disqualifying," Mr. Mitchell said on the ABC-TV broadcast "This Week with David Brinkley."

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