Obituaries for the Senate's arcane practice of allowing members to put secret "holds" on legislation or nominations were definitely premature -- as Richard C. Holbrooke, President Clinton's choice for ambassador to the United Nations, can attest.
Four months ago, after three years of senatorial squabbling over the issue, Republican and Democratic leaders announced a new policy to curtail secret holds. It was immediately hailed by its leading supporters as a big step toward openness and accountability in the Senate.
It turned out to be a short step.
As of late Thursday, when the Senate took off for a week-long Fourth of July recess, three or more senators had put holds on Holbrooke's already long-delayed nomination. Only one of them, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a leading promoter of the anti-secrecy move, has publicly acknowledged responsibility.
"There's no question in my mind, based on what we know now, that this clearly violates the spirit . . . of the new policy," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who with Grassley had led the drive to end the longstanding practice under which a single senator can hold up virtually anything on the Senate floor without disclosing his or her identity.
While the anonymous hold-placers remained unknown even to most other senators, sources said the holds did not involve objections to Holbrooke but rather were being used by Republicans as leverage to force concessions from the administration on a variety of points, including other nominations.
Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said yesterday that he thought Holbrooke's nomination would be approved eventually, but that the anonymous senators' problems would have to be worked out first.
The problem arises from an apparent loophole in the new hold policy. As spelled out by Lott and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) in a letter to all senators Feb. 25, the policy says a senator seeking to put holds on bills or nominations must notify the sponsor and committee with jurisdiction over the matter.
But it does not require that the sponsor or committee publicly identify the senator. Also, a nomination has no formal sponsor, and the head of the committee that approved Holbrooke's nomination is Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who likes holds and isn't talking. Hold-placers are also supposed to give written notification to their party leader. But Lott isn't talking either.
Wyden said he has been monitoring compliance with the new policy since its inception and has found it "pretty acceptable" -- until now. He said it was not intended that there be different standards for bills and nominees.
Grassley had taken the Senate floor to explain his hold (he is protesting what he regards as shoddy treatment of a whistle-blower in the U.S. delegation to the United Nations) and said he was surprised to find that others had gone back to the secretive ways of the past. "I figured the spirit [of the agreement] was to be openness" for both nominees and bills, he said.
Both Wyden and Grassley said they intended to talk to each other and with party leaders about tightening up the policy to avert more secret holds on nominations.