Herman Confirmed for Cabinet After Concession by President
By John F. Harris and Frank Swoboda
Alexis M. Herman won easy approval in the Senate yesterday to be secretary of labor after a three-month confirmation battle that ended only when President Clinton made a last-minute concession to Republicans.
For all the controversy and delay Herman's nomination generated, she was ultimately swept into office by a wide, bipartisan vote 85 to 13.
For the administration, however, Herman's passage came at a cost: The White House yesterday bowed to GOP demands that Clinton back off plans to issue an executive order that was designed to encourage union labor on federal construction contracts.
Vice President Gore had announced the planned executive order with a flourish in February, a move that was widely viewed in political circles as a bouquet to organized labor, given in exchange for its support in the 1996 elections.
Sen. Don Nickles (Okla.) had led a Republican charge against the executive order, threatening to block a vote on Herman unless Clinton dropped the plan. Democrats countered that they would bring Senate business to a standstill unless Republicans acted on Herman's nomination.
Senate and White House negotiators finessed an end to the stalemate late yesterday, in a deal that left both sides claiming victory. The White House said that, instead of an executive order, it would issue a "presidential memorandum" to federal agencies that would have the same effect of encouraging union labor on large contracts.
But a spokesman for Nickles boasted that the senator had forced the administration to back down, a view that was shared by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other groups that had been protesting the planned executive order.
White House officials said the bargain, which came together over the past two days, was clearly worth it. Herman's confirmation leaves only one person still to be confirmed among Clinton's Cabinet nominees acting CIA Director George J. Tenet.
And it ends what had amounted to a political high-wire act by Herman as she tried to win confirmation. Herman, who will be the only black woman in Clinton's Cabinet, had to answer questions about her business affairs and her role in providing the administration access to large Democratic contributors while serving as White House director of public liaison in the first term.
"I want to thank the Senate for its strong show of support for Alexis Herman," Clinton said in a statement. "There was never any question that she was highly qualified to be secretary of labor."
A veteran Democrat, Herman had also served as a chief of staff to Ronald H. Brown when he was chairman of the Democratic National Committee between 1989 and 1992. Herman had served as head of the Woman's Bureau at the Labor Department in the Carter administration, but had only modest connections to organized labor in the intervening years. Before her selection, several union leaders let it be known privately that they preferred other candidates.
Moments before yesterday's vote, Nickles pronounced himself satisfied with the deal. It was struck, participants said, following discussions he had with White House deputy chief of staff John Podesta, White House congressional liaison John Hilley and other administration officials.
"I didn't have a problem with Alexis Herman being secretary of labor," said Nickles. "My purpose was to make sure that the administration does not try to legislate by executive order."
"I'm delighted that this unconscionable delay has ended," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "It was a mistake for the Republican leadership to hold her nomination hostage on a separate labor issue."
Clinton's proposed order would have urged agencies to sign "project agreements" stipulating that union labor would be used on certain contracts. Such agreements are typically signed for large and long-term contracts such as the construction of dams. The executive order would not have been binding, and neither will be Clinton's memorandum. The main difference, White House officials said, was that a memorandum lapses when Clinton leaves office, while an executive order would stay in effect unless a successor formally rescinded it.
An AFL-CIO spokeswoman said her organization was "thrilled" by the outcome of the negotiations. Some in Clinton's own party, however, accused him of capitulation.
A liberal Democratic official in the House, who asked not to be identified, called the deal that led to Herman's passage a "complete cave" by the White House.
Gore and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), whom some Democrats expect to be rivals for their party's nomination in 2000, have been engaged in something of a contest to win the affections of big labor. Both gave speeches yesterday praising labor at a gathering of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
"You're not ever going to see a proposal that undermines labor principles get past this White House," Gore said. "It's not going to happen."
An hour later, Gephardt told the group that last year's overhaul of welfare, signed by Clinton and supported by Gore, was a "cruel hoax" on the poor. "We have to have a set of policies in this country that help real people make it," Gephardt said.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company