Cellucci Gets a Hearing and a Delay
WASHINGTON - Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci's super-smooth road to become US ambassador to Canada may have a bump in it after all.
While his supporters say it's just a scheduling glitch, social conservatives who oppose Cellucci's nomination took heart yesterday in a delay that could push the governor's confirmation back more than two weeks.
Senate majority leader Trent Lott's office said Cellucci's confirmation will not be dealt with this week as the governor's supporters expected. Instead, it won't be brought up until after the Senate returns from its two-week Easter recess on April 23. No reason was given for the delay, but Senator Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - which has the first vote on ambassadorial nominations - has been lobbied hard by social conservatives.
Cellucci has been sharply criticized by social conservatives for taking what they call "antifamily" stands. In a two-page statement of opposition to his confirmation, the Family Research Council, a conservative group that opposes same-sex marriage, gay rights, abortion, and pornography, said the governor "has demonstrated a long-term pattern of support for organizations whose avowed purpose is to indoctrinate children through the public schools into an acceptance of homosexuality and sexual promiscuity as 'normal' and the moral equivalent of heterosexual monogamous marriage."
The group pointed to a series of positions Cellucci took, from the 1997 decision to increase funding for the Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth from $250,000 to $1.5 million to his attendance at a birthday party on Jan. 22, 1998, that was sponsored by Planned Parenthood.
"We will feel that some hard work has paid off if indeed this has been delayed," said John Haskins, acting director of the Waltham-based Parents Rights Coalition, another conservative group. "Most of the pro-family groups have opposed this nomination."
For Helms, blocking Cellucci's nomination would be an act of open defiance of President Bush, who has asked that the Senate confirm him quickly so he can participate in a summit of North and South American leaders in Quebec City on April 20.
Cellucci's supporters are still holding out hope that the confirmation will be taken up before the end of this week.
Yesterday, the governor went before the committee, but only three of its 18 members were present. The meeting lasted only 40 minutes. Helms, Republican of North Carolina, did not attend.
Cellucci was introduced to the committee by Massachusetts senators Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, both of whom support the nomination. He answered a few basic questions about US-Canada relations and received high praise from the senators.
Reporters later asked Cellucci about the investigation of cost overruns at the Big Dig, but the senators did not.
"The hearing went very well," said Senator Joseph Biden, Democrat of Delaware.
Biden said he knows of no opposition to Cellucci's nomination among Democrats and added that the delay is "just the mechanics of trying to get an executive committee vote. It's nothing sinister."
Cellucci's press secretary, John Birtwell, said the governor himself does not know when the confirmation will come up again.
"This has been the million-dollar question here in Boston," he said. "The Senate has its own protocol. We're respectful of that."
Immediately after the hearing, Cellucci seemed unaware of any possible delay.
"I'm very grateful to the committee for expediting the process and I'm hopeful that they can move toward confirmation," he said.
Asked if he had been expecting tougher questions, Cellucci said tough questions would not have been a problem for him.
"You never know what to expect," he said. "I was ready for whatever questions were asked.
Members of social conservative groups did make their opposition to Cellucci's nomination known yesterday. One man, Jack Clayton, who said he's a member of a group called Public Advocate, walked out while Cellucci spoke. Clayton described Public Advocate as a group that opposes gay rights and abortion.
"I can't stand to be in the same room with Paul Cellucci," Clayton said as he left.
Senator Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, asked Cellucci to ignore the outburst. "That's not a member of the US Senate," he said.
Senator Lincoln Chafee, Republican of Rhode Island, served as chairman in Helms' absence.
Helms killed the nomination of Cellucci's predecessor, William F. Weld, to be ambassador to Mexico by refusing to schedule a confirmation hearing.
Expecting Helms to block Cellucci would be "asking a lot," admitted Richard Lessner, executive director of American Renewal, the lobbying arm of the Family Research Council.
"He carried the battle on Governor Weld's nomination singlehandedly and we respect what he did and admire the courage he showed," Lessner said. "It's a lot to ask him to do that again. At this point, we're asking him not to rush this nomination through with unseemly haste. Important public policy issues have arisen with Cellucci's nomination, and we think these issues need to be fully aired in public."
Helms was cryptic yesterday when asked if he will schedule a hearing of the full committee on Cellucci's nomination. "The full committee has not met on it," he said, refusing to elaborate.