Feeding Senate piranhas

Posted: Aug 09, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- While celebrating last week's pre-recess victories in Congress, President Bush's senior aides shrugged off one regrettable but relatively minor defeat. Since there seemed to be no way to confirm Mary Sheila Gall as chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) following her rejection by the Senate Commerce Committee, why not just move on? The problem: long-lasting repercussions from this low-level setback. Sen. Hillary Clinton, who personally engineered Gall's defeat, now clearly emerges as a rising power after seven months in the Senate. More important for the present, Gall's blood on the Senate floor could excite Democratic piranhas. If an obscure nominee can be eliminated with a stealth campaign overlooked by the White House, the interpretation in the Democratic cloakroom will be that George W. Bush can be rolled on more important selections. Indeed, the disposal of Gall is seen by Democratic senators as a model for future Bush nominations -- especially when the death blow is administered in committee without a tumultuous Senate debate. President Bill Clinton never accepted a Republican-controlled committee's rejection of a nominee as the last word, and Bush wants to send the same message to Capitol Hill. But how can that be done if Gall cannot be saved? Gall's problems derive from her relationship as the Republican commissioner on the three-member CPSC with the Democratic chairman, Ann Brown. On a regulatory body required by law to have one minority party member, they clashed over such momentous questions as baby walkers, bunk beds and medicine-bottle caps. Gall, urging voluntary solutions, opposed what she called the "federal nanny state" while Brown demanded mandatory regulations. It was an uneven struggle. Gall, a career conservative Republican functionary for 30 years including 10 years on the CPSC, is unknown to most big-time politicians. Brown is a rich and famous party-giver with close ties to high-level figures in government and the news media. Federal Election Commission figures show her making over $30,000 in contributions to Democratic candidates for federal office in recent years -- including $2,000 to last year's Senate campaign by her very good friend, Hillary Clinton. In opposing Bush's nomination of Gall to replace Brown as chairman, Clinton worked under the radar. Gall's old friends on Capitol Hill warned the White House of serious trouble ahead, but Bush's neophyte aides did not take it seriously. Republicans speculated that Clinton had blundered as a transplanted New Yorker in opposing a native of Buffalo, a single mother with two adopted children. The 12 to 11 Commerce Committee party-line vote against Gall was a byproduct of the Democratic Senate takeover following Sen. James Jeffords' defection. Gall's friends had hoped that centrist Democratic Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana would cross party lines. Instead, Republican hearts once again were broken by Breaux, the recipient of $750 from Ann Brown. Chairman Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, another supposed centrist, has received $1,000 from Brown. Those are penny ante donations, however, compared to Sen. Clinton's $600,000-plus war chest for distribution to fellow candidates. Only one Democratic defection on the Senate floor would confirm Gall, and Sen. Zell Miller could be that defector. "I would not be bound by the committee's vote," the maverick Georgian told me. He will probably never cast that vote. Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle says he will not bring the nomination to the floor (though in the past, nominees have been given a floor vote despite rejection in committee). Forcing floor action on Gall looks like a parliamentary impossibility. If Gall cannot be saved, Bush will attempt to salvage credibility by ousting Brown as chairman over Democratic protests that he does not have such power. That will designate as acting chairman Democrat Thomas Moore, the third commissioner and a former Breaux aide who supported the Gall nomination. Democrats who previously claimed judicial nominations required a higher level of senatorial scrutiny now have added regulatory appointments -- even to the backwater CPSC -- as subject to rejection solely on ideological grounds. But it does not end there. Otto Reich, an anti-Castro Cuban-American nominated as assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, may be bottled up in committee. Getting rid of Mary Sheila Gall only whets the new Senate majority's appetite.