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'A Question of Fairness'


Four times during his brief remarks yesterday Senate minority leader Tom Daschle spoke of "a question of fairness." Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr. was not getting a fair shake in his four-month effort to become U.S. surgeon general, the South Dakota senator said. And indeed he wasn't. Dr. Foster ran up against hard-nosed presidential politics, the growing influence of the religious right in the Republican Party and early bungling by the Clinton White House. It was too much for a Washington outsider to overcome.

Fairness would have dictated that Dr. Foster, a Tennessee obstetrician-gynecologist, receive the courtesy of an up-or-down vote. The president -- regardless of what party he represents -- should be given the right to pick his own people. Applying ideological litmus tests isn't appropriate.

Yet that is what happened in the Senate. Dr. Foster's admission that he had performed 39 abortions in nearly four decades of medical practice was enough to convince Republican conservatives that he had to be defeated -- even if they didn't have a majority of the votes in the Senate to do so. Pandering as always to the right wing of the Republican Party, presidential hopeful Phil Gramm threatened a filibuster. That was enough to persuade majority leader Bob Dole, also running for president, to appease the far right in the party, too.

Thus, Dr. Foster gained a majority of Senate votes -- 57 -- but fell three short of the number needed to limit debate and get an up-or-down vote.

That ought to strike most Americans as unfair. It certainly isn't a case of majority rule. One of the reasons people are disenchanted with Washington is the suspicion you can't get an honest break. Even if you line up a majority on your side, you still aren't assured victory.

It is unfortunate Dr. Foster's nomination is now in limbo. The physician is an honorable man and a well-regarded doctor whose uplifting life story makes him ideally suited to mount the bully pulpit as surgeon general. He has been especially active in trying to discourage teen pregnancies.

Presidential candidates active in this maneuvering got what they wanted, though. Mr. Dole proved his bona fides with the religious faction of the GOP and stifled complaints that he had lost his skill as a legislative tactician. Mr. Gramm won points with right-wing social conservatives. And Bill Clinton came out for once looking determined and committed, having "gone to the mat" for his nominee.

As a matter of presidential prerogative, Mr. Clinton ought to send another name to the Senate to serve as surgeon general -- someone who shares Dr. Foster's convictions but whose background is less provocative. There should be no litmus test applied to a nominee for such a symbolic post. Litmus tests don't serve the country or the government. Mr. Clinton should drive that point home. It would be the presidential thing to do.

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