As a Democratic senator from Illinois, Paul Simon takes some of the credit for Republican Lynn Martin's nomination to the Bush Cabinet. "But for my help, Lynn Martin would not be here today," Simon told the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee yesterday, prompting laughter.

"Indeed, if it were not for Paul Simon, I would not be here today," Martin testified moments later at her confirmation hearing to be secretary of labor. The former five-term Republican House member from Rockford, Ill., told the committee that if not for "fate and a few thousand precincts," she would be sitting in Simon's Senate seat.

The affable exchange comes two months after Simon buried Martin by nearly a million votes in the Illinois Senate race. And it set the tone for a hearing short on substantive questions and even shorter on substantive answers.

From the start, it was obvious Martin's confirmation was in the bag. Some senators even chose to call her "Madame Secretary." Martin could be confirmed by the Senate as early as next week.

The mood of the hearing was so casual that even Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) joined in the praise. With Martin flanked by Simon, Sen. Alan J. Dixon (D-Ill.) and House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), the normally cantankerous Metzenbaum said bipartisan support for the nominee "attests to the quality of human being you are."

Metzenbaum's only real advice to Martin was not to become a "political hack" and just continue to sit in the job if she had serious policy differences with the White House. "Knowing of your past record, I know that won't be the case," Metzenbaum said.

Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) left little doubt about Martin's confirmation fate when he opened the hearing by talking of her "impressive record" in the House and telling her that the committee looked forward to working with her as labor secretary.

Kennedy also noted that Martin was "the first and only secretary of labor to be nominated by a president after having voted in Congress to override the president's veto on a crucial labor issue." He said that spoke well of both Martin and the president.

In the last Congress, Martin voted to override President Bush's vetos of the civil rights and family leave bills.

Much of the 2 1/2-hour hearing was spent with committee members making statements about one problem or another and Martin pledging to look into the problem. At one point, in response to a question from Metzenbaum, Martin confessed: "I just don't know everything yet. I don't."

Martin's biggest asset will be her political access -- particularly at the White House, where she is known to have a close relationship with Bush.

Martin wasted no time yesterday letting the committee know of that relationship. In her opening statement, Martin said: "My admiration for the president is no secret. Our relationship has always been one that permits honest opinions and frank assessments. He will continue to receive both, as well as my loyalty, if I am confirmed."

Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who served in the House with Martin throughout much of the 1980s until he was named to the Senate to replace Vice President Quayle, underscored Martin's political credentials. "Lynn knows how this system works. She has access to the president that many of us envy," he said.

In one of the few potentially awkward moments for Martin at yesterday's hearing, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) noted her support for the family and medical leave bill in the House last year and said he hopes she will continue to support the legislation when it is reintroduced this year.

But Martin deftly pushed the question aside, using her relationship with Bush as a reason for not answering. "Were I in the House, I might vote for family leave," she told Dodd. Now, she said, "I hope I can act as a fulcrum."

She said issues such as family leave were best discussed "between the president and his Cabinet member, not in a public forum."