Ethical questions about surgeon general nominee delay confirmation hearing Husband is alleged to owe tax for nurse

July 16, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The White House bowed Thursday to Republican pressure to postpone confirmation hearings for President Clinton's nominee for surgeon general, Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders, to give her supporters and opponents more time to examine ethical questions uncovered in background checks.

The most serious issue is a lawsuit filed against the National Bank of Arkansas over events that occurred when Dr. Elders was serving on its board. The bank was the subject of a successful hostile takeover, and some new directors sued the previous directors, including Dr. Elders, for shoddy lending practices that they said violated federal banking laws.

The suit is now being settled. But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Labor Committee that was scheduled to hear Dr. Elders confirmation on Friday, and Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum of Kansas, the ranking Republican on that committee, agreed that it would be best to postpone the hearing for a week while their staffs reviewed all the documents from the comptroller of the currency to determine what if any role Dr. Elders played on the board.

White House officials insist it was minimal.

And administration officials disclosed that Dr. Elders has been collecting her salary as Arkansas' health director while she was getting a $550-a-day federal consulting fee -- for her work preparing for the nomination hearings and for her new job -- and that her husband had not paid Social Security taxes on household help for his ailing mother.

Dee Dee Myers, the White House spokeswoman, said Mr. Clinton was still committed to Dr. Elders' nomination, which has attracted vigorous opposition from conservatives because of her outspoken support for abortion rights, distribution of condoms to teen-agers and early sex education.

Officials also said the White House was satisfied with her explanation for the new ethical issues. Dr. Elders has told them that she was simply collecting accumulated vacation pay while working in Washington and that she was not involved in the financial arrangements made for her mother-in-law's care.

But with confirmation hearings scheduled for today , Republican senators demanded a week's delay. And the White House, which needs a handful of Republican votes to prevent a filibuster that could kill the nomination, agreed.

"We support the decision to postpone the hearings," Ms. Myers said. "It will give Dr. Elders an opportunity to provide all the answers to the committee. The president stands behind her 100 percent."

The decision was reached in discussions between the White House and Senator Kennedy and Senator Kassebaum.

"We could have jammed it down the Republicans' throats tomorrow, but we would have paid for it later," a senior administration official said. "This way we let everyone have their questions answered. We are trying to navigate this thing through in a way that will win as much Republican support as possible."

In giving in to the Republicans, White House officials swallowed their concern that postponing the hearings could give opponents another week to continue painting her as a medical radical.

White House officials have been saying for weeks that nothing would more effectively blunt opposition to Dr. Elders than her own testimony before the Senate Labor Committee.

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