WASHINGTON -- More than a month after the White House announced it had selected Shirley Sears Chater to head the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan is demanding to know why her nomination has not been submitted to Congress.
"Where is it?" Mr. Moynihan asked yesterday, stretching his hands wide. The Democratic senator posed the same question Wednesday to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala.
"Dr. Shalala said to me, 'It is at the FBI,' " said the New York Democrat, whose committee will recommend whether to confirm Mrs. Chater if she is nominated. "I said, 'Well, go get it.' "
Capitol Hill aides and advocates for the elderly have speculated that the delay might be a signal that the nomination is in trouble, but administration officials insist that Mrs. Chater's appointment still on track.
Last month, the administration confirmed that both Mrs. Chater and the acting commissioner of SSA, Lawrence H. Thompson, had failed to pay Social Security taxes on household help. Both paid what they believed was owed plus penalties, according to Victor Zonana, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.
Between 1969 and 1975, Mrs. Chater could not remember if she paid Social Security taxes for part-time domestic workers, including several teen-age baby sitters, according to Avis LaVelle, assistant secretary for public affairs of HHS. Mrs. Chater hired a full-time worker in 1975 and began paying Social Security taxes at that time, Ms. LaVelle said.
Advocates for the elderly warned that the failure to pay could set off a public outcry when the Senate takes up the confirmation, not unlike the widespread anger that doomed the candidacy of Zoe Baird for the post of attorney general in January. Ms. Baird, unlike Mrs. Chater and Mr. Thompson, hired two illegal aliens and failed to pay Social Security taxes for them.
In a letter last month to White House Communications Director David Gergen, Mr. Moynihan wrote that the White House should take the advocates' warnings "seriously." Mr. Moynihan said yesterday he wanted the administration to "make sure we don't have something that embarrasses everybody here," but has not decided to oppose Mrs. Chater's nomination.
"I know nothing really about her," Mr. Moynihan said. "There is no nomination."
Dr. Shalala said in an interview Wednesday that the FBI was completing a routine background check on Mrs. Chater, president of Texas Woman's University, adding that the nomination should be submitted by the end of September.
The White House and HHS, parent agency of the Social Security Administration, have strongly defended Mrs. Chater, playing down the significance of her failure to pay the Social Security taxes. The plan to nominate Mrs. Chater was first announced Aug. 3.
The $115,700 commissioner's job has been vacant for nearly a year, and the long search has prompted frequent complaints from Mr. Moynihan and others. The search was slowed by an apparent battle over the choice between White House officials and Ms. Shalala, who pushed for the selection of Mrs. Chater. SSA employs 14,000 people at its Woodlawn headquarters.
Privately, administration officials are complaining that candidates who were passed over are campaigning to undermine Mrs. Chater's nomination.
"Shirley Sears Chater is a fabulous candidate and will be a great leader for Social Security," Dr. Shalala said.
Dr. Shalala said she met with representatives from several senior citizens' groups Wednesday, "and we have no reason to believe they will be anything but enthusiastic."
Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski praised Mrs. Chater and questioned the relevance of the tax issue. "What are they going to ask about next?" she asked yesterday. "Whether she returned all her library books in 1975?"