"It's very painless," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said of the lie detector test he took the other day. No official results were released, but Richardson says he passed.

The Energy Department plans to require as many as 5,000 scientists working in nuclear programs to be polygraphed on espionage matters. Richardson said he took the test Tuesday "because one of my employees dared me."

Seems when Richardson was out talking to Los Alamos lab folks, someone wanted to know why, if polygraphing was such a superfine idea for them, how come Richardson wasn't taking one? The scientists argue the tests are intrusive and unreliable.

Not at all, Richardson said in a telephone interview yesterday. "There are no lifestyle questions," he said. "You sit in a comfortable chair" with the examiner in the room and he "ties two of your fingers together to a cord into a computer, not like that old meter that you see in old movies. It's very simple, four simple questions."

The questions likely were similar to the four being proposed by the department: whether an employee spied, committed sabotage or terrorism, illegally disclosed classified information or had unauthorized contact with foreign intelligence types.

"I took it to send a message," Richardson said. "They tell me I passed."

Sure. But they didn't ask him about that "temporary" beard that he's had for months; "it's coming off soon," he said. Or about his claim to have lost 30 pounds, or about whether he's running for governor of New Mexico.

Clinton-Lewinsky Needed a 'Fresh Face'

Now he tells us. Kenneth W. Starr thinks someone else should have investigated President Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky.

"I think it would have been much better for the country that the Lewinsky matter should have been handled by another independent counsel. . . . It would have been better, all things considered, for there to have been a new, fresh face," Starr said in a speech Wednesday in Los Angeles.

Looking back, Starr said that a new prosecutor would have been able to avoid "that very serious public perception" that he was after the Clintons.

The Plot Unhatches

Senate skirmishing, some of it testy, began yesterday--with a possible showdown Tuesday--over the nomination of Utah conservative Republican Ted Stewart, a pal of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah).

Clinton nominated Stewart a few months ago to please the powerful chairman and keep the judicial confirmation process moving along. But the White House and Senate Democrats expected several nominees, some held up on the Senate floor for years because of objections from a handful of Republicans, to finally receive a Senate vote along with Stewart.

So yesterday, when Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) proposed a vote on some noncontroversial judges along with Stewart, the Democrats, led by Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), blocked the action.

Hatch took the floor against the possibility that Stewart would be held up by a minority of 41 senators in a filibuster. Bad way to go, he said.

No one wanted that, Leahy agreed, but one or two Republicans already have been holding up Clinton nominees for a long time.

In the end, everyone agreed to calm down and to try to work out an accommodation by Tuesday to avoid setting a precedent of filibustering judicial nominees.

Stay tuned.

Emergency Blows Over

In Washington, there's a pecking order for everything, even emergencies. For example, the Emergency Coalition for U.S. Financial Support of the United Nations was planning to hold a news conference yesterday in the Rayburn House Office Building to push for U.S. payment of its debt to the United Nations.

Nearly two dozen religious groups were to release a letter urging payment, and three religious leaders, along with Reps. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.), Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), and the emergency coalition people, were to speak.

But Wednesday afternoon, after an alleged bigger emergency named Floyd announced he'd be coming to the Washington area on Thursday, the coalition issued a press release saying its emergency was "Postponed Due to Hurricane!"

Everyone Wants to Be Vice President

Thomas S. Amontree, a former television reporter, a 1992 Clinton campaign worker and more recently director of communications at the Agriculture Department, is leaving to be vice president for strategic communications at the American Trucking Associations. As reported Sept. 1, White House deputy counsel Cheryl Mills is joining Oxygen Media, the women's media organization, early next month. The organization said this week that Mills will be Oxygen's senior vice president of corporate policy and public programming.

Right Name, Wrong Letters

We misspelled National Economic Council aide Patrick Dorten's name on Wednesday. Unclear what happened--but let's blame Janet Reno anyway.