Lukewarm Backing From White House May Bury Bush Nominees

President Bush's seemingly lukewarm support for two of his nominees may sink their chances for confirmation in the Senate.

Otto Reich, a Cuban-born conservative up for a State Department slot for Latin American relations, has been denied a confirmation hearing so far this year.

Labor lawyer Eugene Scalia, Bush's nominee for Labor Department solicitor general, already got a thumbs up eight weeks ago from the Senate panel reviewing his nomination. All 49 Senate Republicans and even Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., support Scalia's nomination. Yet Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has blocked a floor vote.

Irate conservatives say both nominations will fail unless Bush goes to bat for them.

But comments out of the White House Monday, indicating that the president's congressional relations office is carrying the torch, doesn't bode well for a Bush intervention, even though White House spokesman Ari Fleischer has said the president is on the case.

"That is something that the president has talked about with Senate leaders, about the need to allow him to put his team in place. I'd have to look back and see which meeting," Fleischer said Monday when asked what the president was doing to push his nominees.

Bush's nominees have been criticized for a variety of reasons. Reich's critics cite his ties to former Iran-contra figure Oliver North and questionable propaganda activity in the mid-1980s.

Daschle says Scalia's credentials aren't up to par.

"It has nothing to do with anything other than his qualifications and the view by many in our caucus that Mr. Scalia is not qualified for this particular position, especially given his position on ergonomics and a number of other worker-related rules," Daschle said last week.

Presidential scholar Paul Light says every administration is denied a few qualified nominees, but admits that Scalia's case is unusual.

"He did make it out of committee and that's ordinarily an absolute positive sign that you're going to finally be confirmed," said Light, a scholar at the Brookings Institution.

Scalia's qualifications include service as a law review editor and a Justice Department official, and a decade as a labor lawyer with a major law firm. His father, however, is Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whose rulings helped decide last year's presidential election.

Top Republicans suspect Daschle is in a payback mode.

"With regard to Scalia particularly, this is trying to take a whack at the father through the son," Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Monday. "If they are willing to vote against a well-qualified, intelligent young man, then fine, let's have the vote."

Light said he doesn't think it's a question of payback over Bush v. Gore, but with a record number of first-year nominations — attributable to a record number of vacancies — it's likely Bush's Cabinet and sub-Cabinet will probably not be fully staffed "until the cherry blossoms bloom next spring."