Quick Approval Could Greet Clinton Cabinet

Most choices appear to be shoo-ins, with clouds hovering over only a few nominees

THE United States Senate, dominated by Democrats, is expected to warmly embrace President-elect Clinton's Cabinet choices in a rapid series of confirmation hearings that get under way Jan. 6.

Insiders predict a sunny reception on Capitol Hill, especially for Lloyd Bentsen, the designate for treasury secretary, and Leon Panetta, the choice for director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Only a few dark clouds are gathering around the Capitol dome, and they are, so far, very small. Republicans may throw tough questions at Ron Brown, the choice for commerce secretary, and Donna Shalala, the designate for secretary of health and human services.

Mr. Brown, a lawyer/lobbyist who has served the last four years as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, may be challenged by senators who wonder why he accepted money from his firm while working as a political insider.

Ms. Shalala, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has upset conservatives with her support for policies that impose "politically correct" speech on campuses, and for her support of multiculturalism.

In addition, Republicans are researching the extensive writings of Harvard Prof. Robert Reich, the labor secretary-designate. Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, who is digging into the backgrounds of the Cabinet nominees, reportedly said that with all of Dr. Reich's writings, he "probably has said some things that he wishes he hadn't."

Recently, Democrats worried that there could be a month of stormy weather ahead for Clinton's Cabinet picks. They fretted that Republicans with long memories might still be seeking revenge for the Senate's partisan rejection several years ago of John Tower as secretary of defense under President Bush.

Senator Lott and minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, however, have promised within the past few days that there will be no so-called "Tower test" of the Clinton nominees. Senator Dole also rejected the suggestion that Lott was organizing a Republican "hit squad" to dig up dirt.

Broadly speaking, the attitude here among many Democrats, Republicans, and outside critics is that Clinton deserves to get his choices in these key jobs. There is also a general feeling that the Clinton team is well intentioned, and until the members prove otherwise, they deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics Inc., says this city sees "a train leaving the station," and no one is trying to stop it, even though some privately say they believe there are conflict-of-interest questions that might be raised about some of Clinton's appointments.

Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, says those who would ordinarily be critical of nominees such as Brown are remaining silent. He told the Congressional Quarterly: "The public-interest groups are diving under their desks. They don't want to be seen as critical of the new administration so early on."

Ironically, just a few months ago, Mr. Lewis was one of those most outspoken about the coziness between Democratic chairman Brown, his law firm, Patton, Boggs, and Blow, and the firm's 1,500 clients.

In a Sept. 23 statement, Lewis observed that Brown had received income from his business firm while serving as Democratic chairman and solicited government business for both his law firm and the company he heads.

As Lewis saw it, the problem was that Brown as Democratic chairman had access to insider knowledge that would be a boon to any lobbying organization. He could attend, for example, "the Speaker of the House's closed-door, deputy whip meetings ... where legislative strategy, the upcoming agenda, and vote counts are frankly discussed."

As for Shalala, differences with her critics appear to be mostly philosophical.

Glenn Ricketts, research director for the National Association of Scholars, a conservative group in Princeton, N.J., calls her "an active proponent of multiculturalism."

At Wisconsin, she required undergraduates at the 42,000-student university to take ethnic studies, opened a multicultural center, and tried to boost the number of minority professors and students.

But Mr. Ricketts says the biggest complaint about Shalala was her support for "speech codes," which he says have "a kind of chilling effect about talking about controversial issues. It is not just hate speech, but a long list of subjects."

Eventually, the speech code in effect at Wisconsin was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge. Attempts to bring back a watered-down version faltered under the threat of court action.

Despite such reservations, even Republicans say that unless new information turns up, the Clinton team will be a shoo-in.

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