WASHINGTON -- President Clinton plans to tap his defeated nominee for surgeon general, Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr., for a high-profile post in which he would speak out on teen-age pregnancy prevention, administration officials said yesterday.
Another top White House official said: "The president wants to HTC use the talents and expertise of Dr. Foster to fight teen-age pregnancy. He's going to find an appropriate role for him."
Mr. Clinton's spokesman, Mike McCurry, said such a role would be in keeping with the president's State of the Union pledge earlier this year to launch a formal campaign to reduce teen pregnancies.
In the wake of Dr. Foster's defeat, Mr. McCurry also raised the possibility that the White House would leave the surgeon general's post vacant.
A majority of senators wanted to confirm Dr. Foster, an obstetrician-gynecologist from Nashville, Tenn., but for a second straight day they fell three votes shy of the 60 necessary to cut off debate and to have a final vote on the nominee. In the 57-43 vote, 11 Republicans joined all 46 Democrats, but the 43 Republican senators opposed to Dr. Foster held fast.
Several White House officials said Dr. Foster was receptive to the idea of another post -- so long as it didn't require Senate confirmation. The precise definition of the job the president has in mind was still taking shape last night, aides said, but it apparently would entail Dr. Foster's involvement in a national commission that would focus attention on ways to reduce teen pregnancy.
Asked about Mr. Clinton doing something of this nature, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, who led the threatened filibuster, shrugged and said, "He certainly has a right to do that -- he's president."
Mr. Clinton, as he did the day before, reacted angrily to the Senate vote to block Dr. Foster's nomination. "Today, 43 Republicans in the Senate failed the fundamental test of fairness by choosing to side with extremists who would do anything to block a woman's right to choose," he told reporters.
For his part, Dr. Foster seemed almost upbeat after his ordeal. At a news conference after the vote, Dr. Foster, surrounded by Democrats who had supported his nomination, said he was disappointed but not bitter. "Fairness didn't prevail," he said.
"Would I have liked a different outcome? Absolutely. But I remain strong, and honored by being the president's choice for surgeon general. I intend to keep fighting for the things I believe in with all my heart."
Abortion becomes an issue
From the beginning, abortion overshadowed this nomination. Dr. Foster ardently supports a woman's right to choose, has been active in Planned Parenthood and has performed several dozen abortions.
White House officials convinced themselves that Dr. Foster's selection as one of President George Bush's "Thousand Points of Light," his volunteer work fighting teen-age pregnancy in the black community in Nashville and his 38-year career as a physician whose primary vocation was to deliver babies would insulate him from attack.
Their confidence proved a spectacular misjudgment.
The nomination quickly ran into trouble as the doctor and his administration sponsors first brushed aside questions about whether Dr. Foster had actually performed abortions, then provided conflicting answers on how many he had performed.
Dr. Foster's credibility was questioned even by Democratic senators; more important, the number, 39, turned out to be wholly unacceptable to the large faction of anti-abortion Senate Republicans. Opposition to the nomination quickly became a conservative litmus test -- one with implications for the 1996 presidential nomination.
Mr. Gramm, a Texan who is seeking to prove that he is as conservative on social matters as he is on economics, seized on the Foster nomination as an example of Mr. Clinton's liberalism, and vowed to filibuster it. The man presumed to be Mr. Gramm's biggest obstacle toward getting the Republican nomination, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, kept most of his party in line against the nomination.
'First presidential primary'
"We had the first presidential primary," Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts said after the vote. "America lost."
Both Mr. Gramm and Mr. Dole denied that presidential politics played a part in their opposition.
"This is not about presidential politics," Mr. Dole said in a floor speech that ended two hours of debate. "This is about Dr. Foster's qualifications for the office and about our right to advise and consent."
At one point, Sen. Robert C. Smith, the New Hampshire Republi
can who is sponsoring a bill to ban late-term abortions, appeared on the floor holding a plastic fetus and displaying graphic posters of a very rare procedure in which, as he described it, a fetus is pulled out by the legs and then killed with a scissor to its head. Although he acknowledged Dr. Foster had never performed such a procedure, he tried to link the doctor with the pictures, outraging both supporters and foes of the nominee.
"If you want to outlaw abortion, if you want to make it a crime, if you want to put women in jail for having them, if you want to put doctors in jail, bring the legislation to the floor," Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, replied in a fiery speech.
"I'll debate you toe to toe, toe to toe, and I'll win that battle. Because, thank you very much, the women of America do not want senators telling them how to handle their private lives."
In the end, Mr. Clinton may have shored up his support among liberal Democrats, just as Mr. Gramm, Mr. Dole and other Republicans established their credentials with conservative Republicans.
It was left to Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell -- who switched parties this year from Democrat to Republican but supported Dr. Foster -- to ruminate aloud over whether the country was really well served in the process.
"We've got too many people running for president," he said.