Posted on December 14, 1992 in Washington Watch

Electoral politics is a never-ending game in the United States. No sooner has one election ended than preparation begins for the next round. This time, however, the next round may come much sooner than anyone expected.

This week the spotlight has focused on the U.S. Senate. President-elect Bill Clinton’s appointment of Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen (a Democrat) as Secretary of the Treasury has brought about a flurry of activity. In the Senate there will be jockeying to replace Bentsen as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. And in Texas there is a scramble as Democrats and Republicans line up to succeed Bentsen after he leaves his Senate seat to take up the Treasury Cabinet post.

The Senate maneuvering is not extremely competitive, but it is still generating a lot of discussion because the logical replacement, the committee’s second ranking Democrat, is Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. Bentsen is thought of as a team player among the Democrats, and was given an excellent chance to push the Clinton economic program through the Senate with relative ease if he remained in the Senate. Moynihan, who actually served at the United Nations during the Republican Nixon Administration, is not always a straight team player for the Democrats.

It had been reported before Bentsen got the nod as Secretary of the Treasury, Democrats inside and outside the Senate sought assurances from Moynihan that he would be supportive of Clinton’s economic proposals as chairman of the Finance Committee. The reports painted Moynihan as agreeing—but many observers feel, however, that Moynihan might begin to use his post to push his own agenda after a short honeymoon if he is pushed.

If Senator Moynihan does in fact get the Finance post, he will have to give up his position as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee because Senate rules prohibit one individual from chairing more than one committee. Similarly, he will also probably have to relinquish his position as chairman of the Finance sub-committee on Social Security (which is one of the New York Senator’s pet issues). This will be a spectacle worth watching, especially after Clinton’s nominee as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Leon Panetta, mentioned that he would be willing to look into possible cuts in Social Security as a way of balancing the federal budget and reducing the national debt.

Meanwhile down in Texas the jockeying is far more competitive. Since each state must have two Senators, and since no Senator can hold another government job, Bentsen must resign before taking up the Treasury post. According to the laws in Texas, the Governor must appoint a temporary replacement and call for a special election within 18 to 19 weeks for the purpose of electing a permanent replacement to serve the remainder of the Bentsen’s term. Bentsen will be the first Senator to resign to serve as a cabinet secretary since Senator Edmund Muskie resigned in 1980 to serve as Secretary of State in the last year of the Carter Administration.

The problem facing the Democratic Governor of Texas, Ann Richards, is that she cannot be certain that a Democrat will win the special election to fill Bentsen’s seat until 1994. This presents the real possibility that after the special election Texas would have two Republican senators.

According to most accounts, Richards’ favorite candidate for the temporary appointment (which would provide an edge in the special election) is the former Mayor of San Antonio, Henry Cisneros. Cisneros is a popular Hispanic leader, but he also under consideration for a number of cabinet positions. Any appointment in the upcoming Clinton Administration would force Richards to look elsewhere for an interim appointee.

The rest of the field is full of Republican and Democratic congressmen, as well as current and former Texas state officials. This will make for a very full slate on the day of the special election, and puts that much more pressure on Richards to produce an interim appointee who can help capture the seat for the Democrats in the special election.

The fact that a Republican might very well win Bentsen’s Senate seat has brought every Republican in the country to focus on the Texas special election, since a pick-up of this seat would reduce even further the Democrats slim majority in the Senate to 56-44. This would also mean a one-seat net gain for the Republicans in the Senate despite losing the White House. Given the reality that a number of conservative Democrats have tended to vote with the Republicans on certain issues over the last twelve years, picking up this seat may even the give the Republicans a working majority on a few issues, such as the military budget. For this reason, Republicans will be sure to pour substantial amounts of money and energy into Texas to help win the special election in May.

This same question of stripping the Senate Democratic leadership to fill cabinet positions is also an issue in two other possible Clinton appointees and may, in the end, discourage Clinton from selecting them.

Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia is a close ally of Clinton’s and a long-time supporter of the President-elect. He was widely considered to be a favorite to become Secretary of Defense in a Clinton cabinet, even though he opposed the Gulf War and has publicly differed with Clinton on the issue of lifting the ban on homosexuals from serving in the U.S. military. (Clinton has supported lifting the ban—which he could do by Executive Order—and Nunn has opposed it.) These differences aside, what now seems to be presenting the biggest obstacle to Nunn’s possible appointment is the recent loss of his Georgia Democratic colleague in the Senate, Wyche Fowler, to Republican challenger Paul Coverdell. Georgia Democrats now fear that, should Nunn resign, they could lose his Senate seat as well in the 1993 special election.

Much the same fear is gripping New Jersey Democrats as they face the prospect of seeing their Senator Bill Bradley leaving should he be recommended as Secretary of State. A possible Bradley appointment to the State Department, which is strongly supported by organized labor, has been the subject of a great deal of press speculation in recent weeks—even in the Japanese press, which on December sixth asserted with confidence that Bradley was Clinton’s top choice for the job. The Japanese, who pay top dollar for inside information and intelligence, frequently know bits of information like this before Americans.

But despite the speculation, or even the possibility that he is in fact Clinton’s first choice, Bradley and the President-elect have remained silent on this subject. This is in part a reflection of the genuine concern about whether or not the Democrats could carry a special election in New Jersey this year.

(There will also be a special election in 1993 to replace Senator Al Gore who will, of course, be sworn in as Vice President on January 20th. Democrats, however, have no worry about winning that race and retaining the seat for their party.)

While Democrats in the Senate should be celebrating their party’s outstanding victory this year, they are instead worried about their ability to hold their 57-43 margin over the Republicans through however many special elections they face in 1993. Their concern is highlighted by the fact that of the 34 Senate seats up for reelection in 1994 (the normal one-third of the Senate which must stand for election every other year), 22 are held by Democrats while only 12 are held by Republicans.

And of the Democrats who are up in 1994, at least five are quite vulnerable and in danger of being defeated. Virginia’s Chuck Robb is still in danger of being indicted for criminally wiretapping the offices of his Democratic rival, Governor Doug Wilder. Two other Democrats who must run in 1994 are Dennis DeConcini of Arizona and Don Riegle of Michigan whose chances of reelection are in doubt as they, too, will be running under the cloud of scandal.

***

The Republican side of the Senate aisle is less than joyful at the moment, however, reeling as it is from some unfavorable press coverage over the past few weeks.

As the national Republican party risks falling apart due to internecine fighting between its various factions—the religious right, the moderates and the traditional conservatives—Bob Dole, the Senate Republican leader has stepped to the fore to assume national leadership of his party. He is the party’s most senior national elected official, and is expected to use that post to project himself as leader of the opposition to the Democrats over the next four years.

Dole’s assumption of this role has been made both easier and more difficult by two scandals that have received a great deal of press coverage in recent weeks.

One of Dole’s rivals, conservative Texas Senator Phil Graham, current chair of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and an erstwhile contender for the 1996 republican presidential nomination, has seen his claim to leadership weakened somewhat by a revelation of a scandal involving construction of his vacation home. The facts are that what Graham paid for the work on his home was one half of the market value, and that he then later intervened in the Senate in a manner favorable to the contractor who had done the work. While all of this is technically legal, the appearance of impropriety has been strong enough to taint Graham, as voters are still in an unforgiving mood when there is even a hint of corruption in politics.

There have also been calls for the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate the case. Graham will most likely receive mo more than a slap on the wrist, but the scandal will hurt him during the next four years. It will also undoubtedly hurt his chances to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1996.

In far more serious trouble on the Republican side, however, is Republican Senator Bob Packwood, who has come under tremendous attack from women in recent weeks following accusations from 16 women, including a then-13 year old girl, that he sexually harassed them and others during his years in the Senate. Perhaps ironically, Packwood has long been a vocal supporter of women’s rights while in the Senate and has been strongly supported by national women’s organizations. But he is now under tremendous pressure to resign from the Senate (to which he was just reelected for a fifth term) by those same women’s organizations.

With four more women to be sworn in in January, and with the Senate still reeling from its disputed treatment of Anita Hill during its highly publicized confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the Senate is under pressure both to act on the Packwood case, and to insure the rights of women employees and guests in their own offices. This second issue first came to light during the Thomas confirmation hearings, when it was revealed that although both the House and Senate had passed laws outlawing sexual harassment in the workplace, both bodies have exempted themselves from these same laws.

Senate Republicans, under other circumstances, would probably be inclined to protect one of their own against attack, but in this instance they will probably not want to infuriate women whose votes they need to win elections. Also, in this case the allegations against Packwood—which he has not denied—are not remotely ambiguous or as open to interpretation as those leveled against Thomas. It appears, therefore, that Packwood’s days are numbered if he can find the wisdom to resign.

This, of course, would produce yet another special election in 1993. Since the Democrats appear to have a good chance of winning a special election in Oregon (Les AuCoin lost narrowly to Packwood this year and Harry Lonsdale lost a close race to Republican Mark Hatfield in 1990), they can be expected to continue to push Packwood to resign.

What is interesting in all of this is that the United States appears to be entering a cycle of unending elections and jockeying for positions in Washington and all around the country. All of this activity, in combination with Clinton’s apparent strategy of the “perpetual campaign” to win public support for his policies, may leave 1992 being recorded as the election that never ended.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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