Patricia Roberts Harris turned away wrath with soft answers and deftly sidestepped potential booby traps yesterday as the Senate Finance Committee took up her nomination to replace Joseph A. Califano Jr. as secretary of health, education and welfare.
Chairman Russell B. Long (D-La.) predicted that Harris' nomination as head of the government's biggest agency ( $200 billion a year) will be approved unanimously by the committee today and could go to the Senate floor as early as this afternoon. Harris is giving up her job as secretary of housing and urban development to move to HEW in place of Califano, who was fired last week.
Although the atmosphere was pleasant, and senators didn't hammer away at her, Harris was pointedly invited by Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and others to declare that she would repudiate Califano's antismokimg views, throw out all of his appointees, challenge President Carter's opposition to Medicaid funding of abortions or publicly take issue with the president if she felt he wasn't doing enough for the poor.
The political professional didn't rise to the bait. instead, she threaded her way around the land mines with lowkey, carefully phrased answers, managing to defuse the question without ducking it.
No, she did not offhand repudiate any Califano policies the president had accepted, and said, "I have no hit list of programs or people."
No, she did not repudiate the antismoking campaign that got Califano into so much political trouble in tobacco states, but she implied that her personal style would be different from Califano's fervent crusading.
The federal medical establishment having identified smoking as a public health problem, it is the HEW secretary's responsibility "to inform people of the dangers of smoking" she said, and if there weren't an information program of some type, she would have been forced to start one.
No, she wouldn't take public issue with the president once he had formulated a policy unless the issue were of such importance that she was prepared to resign over it as a "matter of principle."
She has "no problem" with providing "free access" to information on abortion to teenagers through programs authorized to provide information on pregnancy and health.
The president has said he personally opposes abortion but supports the Supreme Court decision allowing it, and she has no difficulty supporting that position.
As for her views for federal Medicaid funding of abortions, she will carry out the law, which bars such funding in nearly all cases, but she agrees with a statement two years ago by Dr. Julius Richmond, the surgeon general, that abortion can sometimes reduce hazards and that there shouldn't be discrimination against the poor in availability.
Her general philosophy is that "no issues of our time are more important than the ways in which a rich, democratic country deals with . . . the poor, handicapped, infirm and aged."
Asked whether her nomination is "just a change of faces or a shift of policy," she responded, "it is a change of faces -- and persons and personalities, I might add."
Harris went out of her way to endorse Carter's proposed department of education. Califano's lukewarm support (or even covert opposition, according to some in the White House) for the proposal helped lead to his firing.
Although she has no HEW "hit list," Harris said she expects to bring in some of her personal staff. She didn't give any names, but sources said they presumably will include William B. Welsh as assistant secretary for legislation, Bill M. Wise as assistant secretary for public affairs, Stephen Coyle as a personal assistant and possibly Randy Kinder as a personal assistant.
Sen. Herman E. Talmadge (D-Ga.), calling HEW "an organizational nightmare" and "the most ungovernable agency in the United States," told Harris, "I really don't know whether to congratulate you or to sympathize." CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, At Cabinet confirmation hearings, Patricia Roberts Harris answers Finance Committee questions, while Benjamin Civeletti sails through first day at Judiciary. Photos by James K. W. Atherton -- The Washington Post