No matter how one felt about John Tower's qualifications to be defense secretary in President Bush's Cabinet, there is an unmistakable sense of relief that the bitter, rancorous struggle in the U.S. Senate is over.

Senators refused to confirm Tower on a nearly party-line vote of 53-47, with only three Democrats supporting the nomination and one Republican opposing it. That kind of partisan split inevitably will cause problems down the road, despite some Democrats saying that party politics was not an issue.Partisan politics clearly figured in the vote, although they may not have been the dominant difference.

There were a great many reasons to feel uncomfortable about Tower. His drinking, his alleged womanizing, his questionable role as a lobbyist for defense contractors - taken together - were enough to give pause to many Tower supporters.

In the end, all those questions and conflicts perhaps made it easier for senators to take refuge in their respective political parties and vote along party lines.

The outcome was a defeat for Bush in his first test with the Democratic-controlled Congress and is sure to leave echoes of bitterness. The so-called "honeymoon" between Bush and Congress proved fragile and short-lived.

Yet the vote was no surprise. It could be seen coming ever since the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 11-9 along party lines to reject Tower's nomination nearly two weeks ago. Bush could hardly withdraw the nomination at that point without raising questions about his own judgment and ability to stand up to Congress. An easier way out would have been for Tower to withdraw, but he clung to the belief that he would be vindicated.

Unfortunately, the debate was personal, embarrassing and bitter. Congress served as Tower's judge, which it is entitled to do under the Constitution, but the finger-pointing and recriminations made it clear that many senators were guilty of behavior just as questionable as Tower's.

Nobody came out a winner. Tower was rejected. Bush lost his first confrontation with Congress. And Congress itself was left with a tarnished reputation.

After the defeat, Tower proved to be a gracious loser. In a parting statement he said that it was "time for the bitterness, rancor and anger to fade and those . . . who have been involved in the confirmation process to unite and be about the people's business."

That is to be hoped for, but in reality, Republicans in Congress probably will not be ready to forgive and forget so quickly.

The mostly likely target may be Rep. Jim Wright, speaker of the House, who is being investigated by a House ethics panel for some of his activities. There are some in the GOP who would like to make Wright the Democratic version of Tower, but that temptation ought to be avoided.

The country has too many serious problems that require immediate attention. Getting bogged down in a running fight is not going to help anyone come up with the tough answers the nation needs. Too many issues already have been delayed while senators argued about details of Tower's personal life.

Bush should quickly find a new nominee. After the wrenching experience with Tower, the Senate probably is ready to give a quick stamp of approval to almost any new nominee.

Let's heal the wounds, work together and have an administration and Congress that can do more than just fight each other. The "people's business` awaits.