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WALTER MEARS: Taking the plunge on the Weld nomination

August 7, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Maybe cliff-diving in Acapulco would help, as President Clinton joked, but so far, nobody seems to be taking the plunge for William F. Weld’s nomination to be ambassador to Mexico.

The White House is pledged to go to the mat for confirmation _ but not to tackle Sen. Jesse Helms, whose mat it is.

``I thought maybe I’d go down to Mexico and jump off those cliffs at Acapulco,″ Clinton said, laughing, when asked during his news conference Wednesday what he’ll do to get Weld confirmed.

Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright both renewed pledges of support for Weld on Wednesday, but carefully so.

The administration has other business to conduct with the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, where Helms is preventing action on the Weld nomination, and prefers to keep the peace.

``I have had a good and surprisingly constructive relationship overall with Senator Helms,″ Clinton said, ``and it has flowed from our being completely straightforward with one another and acting in a candid and open manner.″

He said they’re dealing with the Weld nomination that way.

At times, it sounds as though everybody except the would-be ambassador wishes he would forget Mexico and just go off to India instead. Helms has let it be known he wouldn’t object to having Weld take that embassy.

That’s only one of the curious turns in this odd confirmation case.

For example, Weld, who would be joining a Democratic administration should he somehow get around Helms, has called the nomination struggle a fight for the soul of the Republican Party, an arena Clinton seems to have entered by accident and miscalculation.

``President Clinton and I have believed very much in bipartisanship,″ Albright said when asked whether they couldn’t have found a Democrat for Mexico instead.

Clinton said he was encouraged that Republican Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana had said he would try to make sure Weld gets a hearing, trying to force one on Helms if it can’t be done otherwise.

His spokesman, though, already has ruled out a direct challenge to Helms. ``We’ve made it quite clear that we will go to the mat,″ Mike McCurry said Monday. ``But we at the same time do not suggest that we support anything that circumvents the authority of Chairman Helms.″

Helms’ committee approved 19 other diplomatic nominations on July 30, and Albright said 57 of 67 pending appointments had been cleared, reflecting an ``excellent working relationship.″

Clinton’s choice of the former Republican governor of Massachusetts to become ambassador to Mexico was supposed to be a bipartisan gesture.

``One of the reasons,″ Clinton said at his news conference, ``I nominated him, ironically, is that I felt that this would build strong, bipartisan support for our relationships with Mexico.″

Instead, it pointed up GOP differences as Helms dug in against Weld and said he would not permit action on the nomination. The administration is hoping Senate and public pressure will lead him to relent, but Helms says not.

Helms said he opposes Weld for being too permissive on drugs, a problem the ambassador would be dealing with in Mexico, because as governor he favored medical use of marijuana and a needle exchange program to combat AIDS.

Weld, who resigned as governor to pursue the diplomatic post, said the real reason is that he just isn’t Helms’ kind of Republican. He is relatively liberal on social issues, including abortion rights.

Hence his characterization of the nomination dispute as a test between differing GOP philosophies. That, of course, has nothing to do with being an ambassador. But even losing it could have a lot to do with a possible Weld campaign for the 2000 GOP presidential nomination. A challenge to Helms would look good on a progressive’s resume.

The administration prefers conciliation. The secretary of state was asked to explain the mysterious chemistry of her relationship with the cantankerous chairman.

``It has to remain mysterious,″ she said.


EDITOR’S NOTE _ Walter R. Mears, vice president and columnist for The Associated Press, has reported on Washington and national politics for more than 30 years.

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