With Chavez, Bush faces first political test

Controversy over cabinet pick sets up clash between loyalty and damage control.

The quickly building controversy over the nomination of Linda Chavez to be secretary of Labor is providing President-elect George W. Bush with his first major political test.

It sets up a fundamental clash between loyalty and damage control for an administration-in-waiting that has made fealty and cool competence a mantra.

Indeed, how Mr. Bush handles the controversy surrounding Ms. Chavez, whom critics accuse of having employed an illegal immigrant to work in her home - as well as the budding opposition to Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft and Interior secretary-designate Gale Norton - will send an early signal of the incoming administration's approach to the power games of Washington.

If Bush caves early, it lays down a marker for opponents and angers his conservative base. At the same time, he has to be wary of squandering its political resources.

"Bush puts a very high premium on loyalty. So, he's not likely to abandon her any time soon," says George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M University. "At the same time, there's going to be a certain tarnish on this whole process now, which had been going quite smoothly."

Two laws may apply in the Chavez case, depending on what the facts turn out to be. The first requires everyone - even housekeepers or babysitters - to be paid a minimum wage if they work more than eight hours a week or earn more than $1,000 in a calendar year.

The second is an immigration law that makes it a crime to harbor illegal immigrants, which includes employing them. But the Immigration and Naturalization Service has said it will not enforce the law for employment violations alone, and that there must be other elements of "harboring." It is unclear, so far, whether Chavez ran afoul of this law. She says she was merely giving shelter to a friend in need.

President Clinton dropped two of his nominees for attorney general, after similar press reports that they had hired illegal immigrants in their home. And opponents of this nomination are gearing up for a major campaign to topple it on the same basis.

"We don't know all the details of the situation, but we do know that Linda Chavez has shown a pattern of disrespect for workers and the law," says AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez Thompson (no relation). Yesterday, the AFL-CIO announced a campaign to defeat the nomination.

It used to be a rare event for the Senate to challenge a presidential cabinet nomination. Of some 500 nominations in US history, only 18 have been rejected outright or withdrawn by the president.

But the 1987 nomination of federal appeals court judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court set a new standard for aggressive vetting of presidential nominees. The fight even produced a new word to describe a concerted campaign to undermine a nomination: "borking."

"Borking means looking at everything anyone has ever written or said publicly, and for Chavez in particular, this could be a critical thing," says James Thurber, a congressional expert at American University here. "She has been a commentator on television and has written so much that you can find many, many things that could be used against her."

Since Bork, much of the firepower in nomination fights is generated outside the Senate. Conservatives and liberal groups are already gearing up for a high-intensity conflict over these nominations. "What's being tested is whether President-elect Bush has the wherewithal to defend ideologically conservative members of his own administration from liberal attack," says Gary Bauer, chairman of the Campaign for Working Families.

Staff writers Francine Kiefer and Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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