WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans will have their firs crack at President-elect Bill Clinton's Cabinet today when the Commerce Committee holds a confirmation hearing certain to focus on Commerce Secretary-designate Ronald H. Brown's controversial foreign lobbying and business dealings.
"He knows those questions are out there in the public arena and it's incumbent upon us to ask them and to give him a chance to respond," Mississippi Republican Trent Lott, a committee member, said yesterday.
The Republican leadership assigned Mr. Lott some weeks ago to coordinate research into the Clinton nominees, raising fears among Democrats that the GOP was seeking retribution for the Democrats' refusal four years ago to confirm John G. Tower as President Bush's secretary of defense. Mr. Tower's nomination was doomed by charges of excessive drinking and womanizing.
"We're certainly not out with a hatchet to get anybody," Mr. Lott said yesterday. He dismissed as "total baloney" reports that he and other Senate Republicans intended to apply "the Tower standard" to Mr. Clinton's appointments.
Mr. Brown, the 51-year-old National Democratic Committee chairman, is not the only one of the 14 cabinet and eight near-Cabinet Clinton appointments likely to face tough confirmation hearings. But Republican Party spokesmen say he may be the most visible because of his business dealings and his political exposure.
Mr. Clinton's communications director, George Stephanopoulos, said yesterday he expected Mr. Brown to be "readily confirmed."
Mr. Lott said he met with Mr. Brown on Monday and discussed some of the issues that could cloud his appointment: whether Mr. Brown would recuse himself from Commerce Department decisions involving his former corporate clients and partners, and whether he would abide by Mr. Clinton's pledge requiring outgoing officials to stay out of the lobby circuit for five years.
The hearings, he said, also would focus on Mr. Brown's position on the board of Chemfix Technologies Inc., a sludge-processing company that won part of a $210 million waste reprocessing contract with New York City in April 1990 -- three months ahead of Mr. Brown's announcement that New York would be host to the 1992 Democratic National Convention.
Mr. Lott said he also warned Mr. Brown to expect questions about his reported links with with the Bank of Credit and Commerce International and other financial institutions.
Mr. Brown's partnership in the powerful Washington lobbying law firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow, which has represented numerous foreign clients -- including Japanese firms seeking to buy U.S. companies and the deposed Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier -- is also likely to be an area of intense scrutiny.
Mr. Brown himself has represented almost 20 foreign corporations, often in opposition to competing U.S. companies, says C. Bryan Little, a director of the U.S. Business and Industrial Council, which represents 1,500 chief executives of U.S. manufacturing and service companies.
The council urged the Senate committee yesterday to secure a promise from Mr. Brown to refrain from lobbying the government on behalf of any foreign client for at least five years after leaving office.
Meanwhile, some Republicans expressed concern yesterday at the pace of the confirmation process, saying it was being pushed too fast for adequate examination of some of the candidates. They pointed to a Washington Post report yesterday that said the FBI had complained to the Clinton transition team that it had not been given enough time to fully investigate some of Mr. Clinton's selections. The report said the bureau's field investigations had in some cases, such as Mr. Brown's, only begun a day or two before Christmas.
Spokesmen for members of both parties in the Commerce Committee said yesterday, however, they believed the FBI had completed its report on Mr. Brown and they did not anticipate any delay in the hearing.
Democratic Party officials said yesterday they expected "tough questions" for several other Clinton nominees.
Brown on TV
CNN and C-SPAN will provide live coverage of today's Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the nomination of Democratic National Committee Chairman Ronald H. Brown to be secretary of commerce.
Both cable networks will begin coverage at 10 a.m. C-SPAN will continue to air the hearing until noon when the House of Representatives convenes, while CNN plans what a spokesman called "extensive coverage" throughout the day.