WASHINGTON — HERE we go again...
Storm clouds have gathered over yet another administration nominee - Joycelyn Elders, tapped to serve as surgeon general. But this time, the White House is making it known that it will stand by its woman.
On the eve of Dr. Elders's confirmation hearings, which had been set to begin last Friday, questions surfaced about her personal finances. The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee postponed the hearings for a week to allow closer examination of Elders's finances, including a version of "nannygate" - unpaid social security and income taxes on a nurse hired to care for Elders's mother-in-law.
The White House is treading in tricky territory. In forcefully making the case for Elders, a renowned pediatric specialist and Arkansas's public-health director, it risks the appearance of a double standard on the financial dealings of high-level nominees, several of whom have been tripped up, some before they were formally nominated, over the question of taxes on household help.
But in its strongest defense yet of a troubled nominee, the White House declared late last week its "unequivocal" support for Elders. The White House has also publicly rallied pro-Elders interest groups, calling 40 of them to a briefing on Friday to enlist their help. After appearing to be caught flat-footed in the face of opposition to previous nominations, the administration now looks to have its public-relations act together. Black caucus crucial
The Congressional Black Caucus expects nothing less from President Clinton. It has threatened to play tough with him on his deficit-reduction package because of his abandonment of Justice Department nominee Lani Guinier. Now another black woman nominee is in trouble, and the Black Caucus's 38 Democratic votes in the House are crucial to the passage of his budget.
On Friday, caucus chairman Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D) of Maryland expressed "in the strongest possible terms" the group's support for Elders. "As you well know," he said in a statement, "her approach is direct, her style is candid, and her record is one of a problem-solver. She is the right person for the right position, and prepared for these critical times in which our nation needs bold and new leadership."
Based on the facts known yesterday, Elders looked as if she could weather the storm. Even the conservative Floyd Brown, creator of the infamous Willie Horton ad that devastated presidential candidate Michael Du-kakis (D) in 1988, predicts that Elders will be approved by the Senate committee and may well make it through the full Senate.
"She may even get a few Republicans," Mr. Brown says. "The president has broad discretion to appoint whomever he wants. And she is in line with Bill Clinton on abortion and the Freedom of Choice Act and condoms in the schools." Allegations raised
Brown - whose group Citizens United has been digging full time into all high-level Clinton nominations - has been out front in exploring Elders's record. He published a lengthy piece in the April 26 issue of the National Review raising allegations about her role as a director of the National Bank of Arkansas and about her aggressive efforts to prevent teen pregnancy in Arkansas.
This week, the Senate labor committee will look into the record on her role at the bank, as well as the revelation that she has continued to receive state pay while collecting fees from the federal government as a consultant. The bank controversy may be difficult to sort out, since the terms of settlement for a related lawsuit are secret. Outspoken advocate
She may also survive the "double dipping" charge over pay. Her explanation: She used vacation days to consult for the Department of Health and Services.
For her conservative opponents, Elders's biggest sin is not in her financial dealings. It's her outspoken advocacy of sex education in schools and distribution of condoms from school-based clinics. The group Concerned Women of America has accused her of promoting "comprehensive sexuality education in kindergarten."
But that charge alone was not enough to sink her. And so, in the wake of other nominations that failed over finances, conservatives went on the money trail.