WASHINGTON -- In a fresh sign of the deteriorating climate in the Senate, party leaders traded accusations of racial insensitivity yesterday.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, opened fire with the charge that a Republican move to block confirmation of former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun to an ambassadorial post reflects a "defiant" pattern of GOP insensitivity to minority rights.
Besides the effort against Moseley-Braun, a Democrat who was the first black female senator, Daschle noted the rejection or delay of black, female and Hispanic judicial candidates, and resistance to a program designed to increase private lending in low-income and minority communities.
"I have never seen a party become this defiant when it comes to protecting minority rights in my time in public life," Daschle said. "Carol Moseley-Braun is just the latest victim of increasing sentiment expressed by an increasing number of Republican senators that I think is very dangerous for this country and very, very harmful to the progress we've made on minority rights over many decades."
Senate Republicans immediately protested Daschle's allegation.
"He knows that's a falsehood," said Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who heads the Foreign Relations Committee and is blocking action on the Moseley-Braun nomination. "I've got more African-American friends than he does. We'll take a count and we'll see."
Helms said President Clinton "deliberately made that appointment [of Moseley-Braun] to have a racial spin on it."
Helms initially told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call that his committee would not act on the Moseley-Braun nomination because of a 6-year-old grudge stemming from their days in the Senate.
Later, he issued a statement saying there is an "ethical cloud" hanging over Moseley-Braun. He said his committee will conduct hearings to examine those charges and will consider the nomination only if those charges prove false.
John Czwartacki, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, called Daschle's charges of racial insensitivity "ironic coming from the party that attempted a high-tech lynching of the Supreme Court's only African-American justice."
A spokesman for Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who is blocking confirmation votes on two judicial candidates -- one Hispanic and one female -- whom he considers too liberal, said the senator found Daschle's remarks "offensive."
"Senator Sessions reviews all nominees based solely on their merits: their experience, their education, their reputation in the community," said John Cox. "Their race and gender are not and should not be considered."
Rep. James E. Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he was heartened by Daschle's comments. "It's a signal to me the Democrats in the Senate are starting to respond to their party's base," Clyburn said.
Clyburn said GOP resistance to programs such as the Community Reinvestment Act, which is intended to direct banks to lend money in distressed neighborhoods, is typical of Republicans' attitude "that they want to take us back to where we were in the last century."
Czwartacki said lawmakers are trying to resolve a philosophical dispute over such lending, which is holding up a banking reform bill.
Daschle's comments came at a time when nerves in the Senate have been badly frayed by the rejection last week of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which Clinton had pleaded with the Republicans to put aside without a vote. Helms also was at the center of that controversy.
His refusal to extend to Moseley-Braun the courtesy usually granted to former senators infuriated her former colleagues. Helms told Roll Call he was still angry that Moseley-Braun had blocked his attempt to renew a design patent for the United Daughters of the Confederacy that used the Confederate flag as its emblem.
"At the very minimum, she has got to apologize for the display that she provoked over a little symbol for a wonderful group of little old ladies," Helms said.
In a later statement, Helms alluded to questions raised about Moseley-Braun's personal and campaign finances during her unsuccessful campaign for re-election last year.