Inside Report: Thurmond watch continues

Posted: Mar 03, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- Sen. Strom Thurmond, the 98-year-old president pro tem of the Senate, no longer routinely presides at the Senate's daily convening. He performed the task one day recently to show he could still handle it, but ordered the pledge of allegiance prior to the chaplain's invocation that is supposed to come first. Democratic senators are no longer content with a death watch on the frail nonagenarian Republican, whose departure would mean Democratic control of the Senate for the first time since 1994. They tell reporters (not for attribution) that Thurmond is not capable of representing South Carolina's citizens and should resign. Waiting for Thurmond to leave is a major reason why Democrats have dragged their feet in adopting this year's Senate committee budgets. The Feb. 28 deadline came and went, and a new target of Mar. 10 has been set. BUSH'S TOUGH TEXAN Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has privately objected to several of President Bush's proposed high-level nominations. He told Clay Johnson, the tough Texan who is Bush's personnel chief, that they will not be confirmed by the Senate. "You can make every appointment from Texas," Lott told Johnson, "but we won't confirm them." When Johnson expressed incredulity, the majority leader told him that's the way things work in Washington. Lott said the Reagan administration was badly wounded when E. Pendelton James, a professional headhunter, became personnel chief. Johnson, a Bush schoolmate at Andover and Yale, also has angered Republican financial contributors who are clamoring for jobs -- especially ambassadorships. Reticent and forceful, Johnson is referred to as "The Refrigerator" by Bush insiders. A SOFTER ASHCROFT Attorney General John Ashcroft, President Bush's strongest conservative in the Cabinet, is disappointing supporters with his performance after the bruising Senate confirmation fight. Ashcroft has been slow to clean liberal lawyers from the Justice Department. Lee Radek, who helped stymie efforts to investigate Clinton-Gore campaign financing, is still running the department's Public Integrity section. Ashcroft did not show up at last month's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to receive its most prestigious award. The excuse given to CPAC officials was disapproval by Justice's ethics office (though an earlier Republican Attorney General, Ed Meese, spoke to CPAC). Sources close to Ashcroft said he feels he should no longer address strictly political gatherings. LAZIO'S COMEBACK Former Rep. Rick Lazio, who was denied the Bush Cabinet seat that he craved, is eyeing a 2002 run for the Long Island district House seat that he gave up for his losing Senate campaign against Hillary Clinton. Lazio would have a good shot at getting back in Congress to start rebuilding his political career at age 43. Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, who won the seat last year, would be highly vulnerable to a Lazio challenge. Israel defeated Islip Town Clerk Joan Johnson, a flawed candidate whose vote was divided by a separate Conservative Party candidacy. A footnote: Rep. Nita Lowey, who abandoned her 2000 Senate candidacy to make way for Mrs. Clinton, may fall short of the $100 million goal she had targeted as the new Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman. Her fund-raising talents are viewed by Democratic insiders as tied to Bill and Hillary Clinton, whose appeal has suddenly dropped. AMBASSADOR NICHOLSON Former Republican National Chairman Jim Nicholson has won a heated competition to be U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. Although Nicholson is a devout Catholic, he is not as closely associated with the Church as his competitors. But he earned points from President Bush through staunch support as party chairman through the 2000 election cycle. The idea launched by some Bush aides that the next envoy to the Vatican should be a Protestant was shot down by Catholic Republicans. A footnote: Don Ensenat, a New Orleans lawyer who was the president's fraternity brother at Yale, will move to Washington to become the State Department's chief of protocol. He lacks diplomatic experience, but Bush wants close friends near him.