WASHINGTON — AFTER months of partisan attacks against his nomination for surgeon general, Henry Foster is about to get a day in court.
But when debate opens on the Senate floor, it won't be a contest between those who support or oppose the nominee so much as another round in a contentious competition between two Republican presidential candidates.
Ever since he acknowledged performing abortions during his career as an obstetrician/gynecologist, Dr. Foster's nomination has added fuel to the rivalry between Sens. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas and Phil Gramm (R) of Texas.
Their maneuvering illustrates how much presidential politics is injecting itself into the workings of Congress's upper chamber fully eight months before the nation's first presidential primary.
"It always has been a presidential shooting match," says Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, noting with disgust the Dole-Gramm posturing. Mr. Specter, an aborition-rights supporter, is also vying for the presidency.
"The Republican position has been an embarrassment to the Senate and the country," he says. Foster "deserves his day in court. We should put abortion behind us; it has no place in politics."
Dole and Gramm would disagree. Both men oppose the Foster nomination. Both want the support of conservative and antiabortion groups that protest the Foster bid. As Senate majority leader, Mr. Dole has the authority to keep the nomination from reaching the floor, and in the face of Gramm's filibuster threats, considered doing so.
But after a closed-door meeting with Foster on June 19, Dole decided to bring the issue before the full Senate, probably before the July 4 recess.
It is widely assumed that Dr. Foster, whose nomination rekindled the political brush fires of abortion, has enough support to eke out the simple majority necessary to win confirmation.
Whether the nomination can survive a filibuster is less certain. Shutting off Gramm will require 60 votes, which means Foster supporters will have to persuade 13 Republican senators to cross the isle. Dole agreed to give Foster two attempts to break the filibuster. If he does, he will likely be confirmed; if not, his nomination will languish indefinitely.
To be sure, the Senate majority leader's decision reflects careful political calculation. Dole is the undisputed frontrunner in the GOP presidential race, while Gramm's campaign is struggling. By filibustering, Gramm may end up looking too conservative, but he may also succeed.
"In the end, Dole is walking a very fine line," says Barbara Sinclair, a professor at the University of California, Riverside. "He wants to get the right [conservatives] on his side without letting the moderates get the willies. In this case, holding the nomination off the floor would have cost more than bringing it up."
"Gramm is dead in the water," she adds. Dole "will stand back and see if Gramm can sustain the filibuster. If he can't, he'll look foolish. This could push him under or revive him."
Clinton nominated Foster in February after asking Joycelyn Elders to step down over her controversial views on sex education and condom distribution.
Although Foster built a solid record with his programs to discourage pregnancy, gang violence, and drug abuse among teenagers during his career in Nashville, Tenn., his nomination ran into trouble early over abortion. The administration initially said he had performed the procedure twice, but records subsequently indicated he had carried out 39 abortions.
Foster also ran into trouble over his role and what he knew about controversial reproductive experiments involving black men and retarded women.
Reflecting the view of a number of her GOP colleagues, Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, chair of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, felt strongly that Foster deserved the consideration of the full Senate even though she personally opposes the nomination. The panel voted 9 to 7 to forward the bid.
"She decided she could not support Foster in committee, but believed the nomination should be debated on the floor, and that there should be an up or down vote," says Mike Horack, a spokesman for Senator Kassebaum. "She'll vote to invoke cloture," the parliamentary measure to break a filibuster.