President Bush vowed Friday to "stand strongly" with Defense Secretary-designate John Tower through next week's Senate floor vote despite the Armed Services Committee's rejection of Tower's confirmation because of questions of character.
"I'm going to strongly continue to back Sen. Tower and I don't believe he's going down the drain," Bush told reporters in Tokyo, where he was attending the funeral of Japan's Emperor Hirohito.The committee, voting strictly along party lines, recommended by 11-9 Thursday night that the Senate reject Tower's nomination after Democrats expressed continuing concerns about questions of his character.
"I cannot in good conscience vote to put an individual at the top of the chain of command when his history of excessive drinking is such that he would not be selected to command a missile wing, a SAC bomber squadron or a Trident missile submarine," Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., the committee chairman, said before the vote.
Bush, faced with a political defeat at home as he made his global debut at the Hirohito funeral, said he believed lingering doubts about Tower would be answered when the full Senate takes up the nomination.
"I am going to strongly continue to back Sen. Tower," Bush said as he left the U.S. ambassador's residence in Tokyo. "I am hoping that this debate that will follow next week will clear up any questions."
The vote marked an abrupt departure from the monthlong honeymoon between the new Republican president and the Democratic majorities of Congress, but Bush said he still believes his relationship with Congress "is going fine."
Should the full Senate reject Tower, it would be the first time in history a newly elected president had suffered a rejection of a nominee to his first Cabinet. In all, eight Cabinet nominations have been rejected, the most recent 30 years ago.
A handful of Democrats suggested after the committee vote Thursday night that Bush seek a replacement for Tower before next week's scheduled floor vote. "It doesn't do the president any good," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. "It's a tremendous burden for any nominee to go to the floor with a vote of no confidence."
But the White House quickly rejected that suggestion.
"There's no consideration of alternative candidates," presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters. "There's no alternate list - bar none."
Tower, a former Texas senator who had once chaired the committee, said in a statement he was "obviously disappointed" but would continue to work at the Pentagon "and await the vote of full Senate."
The strictly partisan vote climaxed an extraordinary 21/2-hour night-time committee session at which lawmakers swapped views on the FBI's investigation into numerous allegations against him.
Tower has been dogged by allegations about his drinking habits and womanizing, as well as by questions of possible conflict of interest posed by his earning hundreds of thousands of dollars as a defense industry consultant after leavingthe Senate.
The committee's senior Republican, John Warner of Virginia, said Bush was entitled to a Cabinet of his own choosing. Warner noted that many of the senators who had served with Tower had been questioned by the FBI during its investigation.
"Not one single U.S. senator, not one who has served with John Tower can ever recall a single instance where any of his personal habits interfered with his duty," Warner said. "Not one."
Sens. Jake Garn and Orrin Hatch, both R-Utah, said Friday they continue to support Tower and will vote for him next week.
"In all the years I have worked with John Tower and travelled with him, I have never seen him intoxicated and I have never seen any evidence to support the rumors that are now surrounding him," Garn said.
Hatch said Tower is knowledgeable, "and he could reform the Pentagon in a way that could strengthen our national security interests. He is the ideal choice for the job because he is a rock-ribbed conservative who understands the importance of peace through strength."
Democrats hold a 55-45 majority in the Senate, and a strictly party line vote next week would doom Tower's nomination. Still, the prospect is for a bruising struggle leading up to an expected vote next Wednesday or Thursday, as Bush tries to sway enough Democratic votes to triumph in his first major confrontation with Congress.
One GOP committee member, Sen. William Cohen, also said the party line vote would make it tougher to forge a bipartisan defense policy.
Another, Sen. Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming, said Tower had undergone "trial by leak," and said, "repetition has become a standard of truth."