With Hormel appointment, Clinton plays to his base

June 14, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's appointment of a gay philanthropist as ambassador to Luxembourg has given the conservatives in the Republican Party still another opportunity to demonstrate to the American people just how extreme they can be.

Once again they are playing to their political base at the possible expense of support among more moderate Republicans and independents who support equal rights for homosexuals.

The issue has been brought into focus by Sen. James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, who has announced that he will use one of those peculiar senatorial privileges to deny Senate confirmation to all civilian nominations by Mr. Clinton for the indefinite future.

The "hold" will apply until the president agrees to limitations on his use of the power he enjoys to make appointments without Senate confirmation when Congress is in recess. That was the route Mr. Clinton took to make James C. Hormel ambassador to Luxembourg while Congress was away for its Memorial Day recess.

Mr. Inhofe's action could cause lengthy delays in the confirmation of some nominees far more significant than a minor ambassador, including Lawrence H. Summers as secretary of the Treasury and Richard C. Holbrooke as ambassador to the United Nations.

Mr. Inhofe was probably right when he said Mr. Clinton was guilty of a "flagrant abuse of the recess appointment power" that, in theory at least, is supposed to be used only in emergency situations that may arise when Congress is on an extended recess.

But the reason Mr. Clinton did so is that the Senate Republicans were flagrantly abusing their powers to deny confirming Mr. Hormel by not allowing a Senate vote on his nomination after it had been pending for two years. Mr. Inhofe described Mr. Hormel as a "gay activist who puts his agenda ahead of the agenda of America," whatever that means.

Mr. Hormel, an heir to a meat-packing fortune who now lives in San Francisco, is the first openly gay ambassador, although not the first homosexual to hold such a post. The critical factor in his appointment, however, was that he was a major financial supporter of the Clinton campaign. That's what makes ambassadors to countries that don't matter.

This is not the first time there has been a rhubarb between the Senate and White House over recess appointments. During the first year of President Ronald Reagan's second term, Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia held up thousands of nominees until a deal could be reached with the White House to limit the use of recess appointments.

Mr. Inhofe says he is seeking a promise by Mr. Clinton to make such appointments only after notifying the Senate in advance that they are "absolutely necessary" to the functioning of the government. But this little brouhaha is not about the prerogatives of the Senate but instead about the cultural conservatives insisting on imposing their moral values on the nation.

The notion of anyone holding up a nomination to Luxembourg is laughable. It is hardly the kind of sensitive post that requires a professional diplomat from the Foreign Service. Nor is it one in which Mr. Hormel's sexual orientation is going to make any difference.

As a practical matter, Mr. Inhofe's action isn't likely to make much difference. Mr. Clinton has made only 57 recess appointments in more than six years in office, compared to 78 made by President George Bush in four years and 239 by Mr. Reagan. So it could be easy enough for the White House to reiterate its intention to use the power only when essential without caving in to demands from Mr. Inhofe.

And although there are a number of Republican senators who share Mr. Inhofe's hostility to Mr. Hormel, Majority Leader Trent Lott is not in a position to agree on blocking all nominations indefinitely. Such a course would invite the Democrats in the minority to use other Senate procedural gimmicks to stall legislation the Republicans want to pass.

It is unlikely that anyone other than his family and friends cared a great deal about whether Mr. Hormel was given the ambassadorship that his campaign contributions earned. But the Republicans in the Senate have raised the question to the kind of prominence that could carry a political price.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 6/14/99

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