William Weld's withdrawal of his nomination as ambassador to Mexico illustrates that when it comes to the Senate, the rules rule. Faced with a choice between challenging the way the legislature does business or standing by the status quo, senators can almost always be counted on to preserve the institution's traditions.
It's a system that often means one or two very determined senators can block legislation or appointments they don't like. And if the objecting senator is a committee chairman - such as Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina - the task is even easier.
In this case, it spelled doom for the Massachusetts Republican. Senator Helms refused to even hold a confirmation hearing, objecting to Mr. Weld's support of medicinal marijuana and needle exchange programs. Weld was unable to muster enough support from other Republicans to overcome Helms's opposition.
"Senator Helms's actions are a reflection of a broader culture in the Senate," says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a Republican-leaning Washington think tank. "The failure of senators to oppose him was less because of a fear of Helms. It was more that most of them secretly like the idea of having the power to single-handedly block something."
The Senate's go-slow, often dysfunctional procedures reflect the Founding Fathers' desire that the upper chamber act as a brake on the more populist and impulsive House. But Mr. Ornstein says the Senate has "gone beyond the protection of minorities to a protection of prima-donna prerogatives."
Holding up nominations and legislation is tried and true Senate behavior, as Helms pointed out during an extraordinary piece of political theater at last Friday's special meeting of his committee. Liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, almost every senator has held up consideration of something he or she did not like, often when the senator's own party was sponsoring the measure. Former Senate majority leader Bob Dole used to refer to Senate action as "watching grass grow" or "watching paint dry."
David Mason of the conservative Heritage Foundation, however, says criticism of the way the Weld nomination was handled is misplaced. "The criticism of it has been blown to absurd proportions," he says. Discussion of how or whether to change the Senate's rules is better left to another time: "This position is not significantly important to argue for or against what kind of procedural changes are needed in the Senate."
Helms's effective use of Senate rules is a hallmark of his clashes over the years with Republican and Democratic administrations alike. In the early 1980s, for example, he placed "holds" on several of President Reagan's foreign policy appointees, preventing the nominee for director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency from taking office.
But others argue that at least other blocked nominees had a hearing, something Helms denied Weld. After a majority of Foreign Relations Committee members, led by No. 2 Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana, were unable to pressure Helms into holding a hearing, it became clear that the nomination would go nowhere unless President Clinton could pressure Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi into going over Helms's head by bringing the nomination to the Senate floor.
But Senator Lott was of no mind to cooperate. First, he objected to Weld's attacks on Helms, whom Weld accused of "ideological extortion." Second, he has taken heavy flak from conservatives for successfully pressing Helms to release the Chemical Weapons Convention for a floor vote earlier this year.
In the end, the president, who must have Lott's and Helms's cooperation to advance his agenda, was unable or unwilling to save Weld's nomination.
While voters don't tend to care much about who is ambassador to Mexico, Weld did strike an antiWashington chord with many and positioned himself as a leader of the GOP's moderate wing. That could be crucial should he someday decide to run for president - something he now says is not in his plans.