President: OK, I Was Naughty Over Gay Envoy

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Having made his point and rewarded his contributor, Bill Clinton is no longer in a fighting mood. The President blinked Wednesday in his staredown with Sen. James Inhofe over gay ambassador James Hormel, promising to notify the Senate of any appointments he plans to make while they’re out of town. It was a courtesy Clinton had observed until the Hormel decision, when, with Senate leaders holding the nomination hostage to the wishes of their conservative wing, it must have seemed pointless. Backing down now, however, is not so pointless -- not when Richard Holbrooke is finally headed for the Senate dock.

Holbrooke, nominated to Madeleine Albright’s old post of U.N. ambassador exactly one year ago, is safely heterosexual and perhaps the sharpest knife in the U.S. diplomatic drawer. But he faces a roadblock of his own in one of (coincidentally?) Hormel’s fiercest enemies, nomination-killer Jesse Helms. In 1997, Helms snuffed out former Massachusetts governor William Weld’s Mexico ambassadorship because Weld hailed from the GOP’s moderate wing, and Helms doesn’t like his kind. In Holbrooke’s case, it’s just another swipe at Clinton, though the official reason is "ethical baggage." Never mind that Holbrooke has been cleared of all wrongdoing in some conflict-of-interest confusion when he was freelancing as an administration envoy -- or that he deservedly enjoys broad bipartisan support in the Senate. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the crotchety Helms is the bottleneck for all overseas nominations, and he promises a third-degree on everything from ethics to "this administration’s misguided policy of appeasing Slobodan Milosevic." The three-day swipe session begins today. But Clinton's bow-out may have ensured that it ends happily.