- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2001

President-elect George W. Bush yesterday expressed confidence in his choice to head the Department of Labor, Linda Chavez, a day after he and his senior advisers talked her out of quitting over reports that an illegal immigrant lived at her home a decade ago.

"I do remain confident in Linda," Mr. Bush told reporters as he moved personal belongings out of the Governor's Mansion in Austin. "I think she'll be a fine secretary of labor. I strongly believe that when the Senate gives her a fair hearing, they'll vote for her.

"And I know there's going to be some withering questions for some of the people that we've nominated for the positions. But I'm convinced all of them will be able to withstand the withering questions."

Mrs. Chavez huddled yesterday afternoon with Christopher Hicks, an attorney whom she originally asked to counsel her on her Senate confirmation hearings but who now is advising her on the legalities of her situation.

Mr. Hicks talked with Mrs. Chavez by telephone on Sunday after the story broke. That same day, she was visited by two FBI agents investigating the reports and looking for any discrepancies in the information she provided in an earlier interview. She spoke with the agents without an attorney present, said a Republican familiar with the situation.

Mr. Hicks, who was associate counsel to President Reagan in his first term and was Labor Department general counsel in the second Reagan administration, met again with Mrs. Chavez yesterday afternoon at her offices at the Center for Equal Opportunity in the District of Columbia.

Neither Mrs. Chavez nor Mr. Hicks would take a reporter's phone call yesterday.

ABC News reported over the weekend that Mrs. Chavez had taken an illegal Guatemalan immigrant, Marta Mercado, into her home in 1991 and 1992. Mrs. Mercado reportedly did chores around the Maryland house and received money from Mrs. Chavez, but it is not clear whether the money was payment for work Mrs. Mercado performed.

Mrs. Chavez says that she did not know Mrs. Mercado was in the country illegally. She also denied that the relationship was a business one, saying instead that she took in Mrs. Mercado as an act of compassion, as she had done with other immigrants in difficult financial straits.

"From what I can tell, from what I've read in the press accounts, [I think] that she's perfectly qualified to be the labor secretary," Mr. Bush said.

Meanwhile, as the FBI prepares its report on its latest meeting with her, a "murder board" is being prepared for Mrs. Chavez to face on Wednesday. The board is the name transition veterans give to the group of experienced Washington hands that meet with a presidential appointee and play the roles of senators from the other party out to "murder" the nominee during confirmation hearings.

Senate Democrats have suggested the report may be enough to derail the Chavez candidacy. But if not, and assuming Mr. Bush continues to support her, Mrs. Chavez can expect a major fight from liberals and labor unions.

Mrs. Chavez, a longtime commentator and employment activist, has irritated key Democratic constituencies with her outspoken opposition to affirmative action, increase of the minimum wage and labor unions. The AFL-CIO is expected to announce as early as today whether to oppose her nomination.

Senate staff said the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Mrs. Chavez sometime next week. Democrats, who technically control the Senate until Jan. 20, will allow panels of witnesses to comment on Mrs. Chavez's nomination, allowing labor unions and others to criticize her in a formal setting.

"These new disclosures are very disturbing," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the committee until the inauguration. "The cloud over her nomination is certainly getting darker."

An equal number of supporters of Mrs. Chavez also will be allowed to testify, Mr. Manley said.

Although it is not unusual for outside witnesses to testify at confirmation hearings, Republicans expressed irritation over the possibility because they did not allow outside critics into hearings for President Clinton's nominees in 1996.

Republicans last week agreed to share power with Democrats in the Senate, which is split 50-50 between the parties. Republicans gain control Jan. 20, when Republican Vice President-elect Richard B. Cheney takes office. The Constitution gives the vice president the power to break ties, giving Republicans a 51-50 edge.

Some Republicans worried that the reports could damage Mrs. Chavez, despite Mr. Bush's support. A Republican familiar with the process said there were serious legal concerns about how Democrats and the press would view her relationship with Mrs. Mercado and her statements about the case.

"It depends on how much the Democrats and the press want to make of this," the Republican said, then added with a sigh: "It's payback time for Bush winning the White House without winning the popular vote and for the Florida recount thing."

Mrs. Chavez is one of three Bush Cabinet appointees who have drawn the most fire from liberals, organized labor and black groups on the left who appear determined to force the defeat of at least one or more Bush Cabinet nominees. The other two targeted nominees are former Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri for attorney general, and Gale A. Norton for interior secretary.

"But I don't know of one Democrat in the Senate or in Washington who believes we can take down all three," a knowledgeable and well-placed Democrat told The Washington Times yesterday.

"Right now, it looks like Linda, whom I like personally but disagree with on abortion and civil rights, is the most vulnerable," the Democrat said. "The civil rights groups, the labor unions and to some extent the pro-choice groups have to have a Republican scalp for their members, and it may be Linda's is the most gettable."

This Democrat also noted that a fight over her nomination would take some of the focus and pressure off Mr. Ashcroft and Mrs. Norton, which would be a help of sorts to Senate Republicans intent on getting as many of Mr. Bush's nominees confirmed as soon as possible, with as little controversy as possible.

"I know for a fact that the Senate Republicans, some of them my friends, understand the concept of triage when it comes to deciding which nominees have to be sacrificed, however reluctantly," the Democrat said.

Senate Republicans, however, so far have joined Mr. Bush in rallying around Mrs. Chavez, a senior staffer said. If Mrs. Chavez's side of the story turns out to be true, he said, the public may see her behavior as an act of compassion and see Democrats as cynically exploiting the issue.

"It's not the slam-dunk for the opponents that it may appear," the aide confided.

Mr. Bush and his team appeared to be handling the situation, his first public relations crisis as president-elect, the same way they handled crises in the campaign by staying strictly on message, carefully limiting the scope of their answers and plowing ahead without regard to criticism. Mr. Bush and his spokesmen resolutely insisted that Mrs. Chavez was acting out of charity in "harboring" Mrs. Mercado.

They also refused to even entertain the notion that Mrs. Chavez might withdraw or that Mr. Bush might revoke his nomination.

"They're hanging tough, that's Bush's way," said Washington lawyer Charlie Black, an adviser to the Bush team.

But, although he was careful to remain on message, Mr. Bush appeared to tire quickly of the issue. At a defense-related meeting with congressional leaders in Austin yesterday afternoon, Mr. Bush scolded reporters for pressing the question repeatedly.

"I hadn't changed my mind from the first time you asked the question earlier this morning," he told Associated Press reporter Tom Raum.

At his earlier appearance at the Governor's Mansion, Mr. Bush finally stopped answering the questions shouted by reporters and retreated, saying, "And, anyway, I'll be glad to answer some further questions after the next election."

The reports about Mrs. Chavez have resurrected memories of the 1993 furor over Mr. Clinton's appointment of Zoe Baird to be attorney general. Three weeks after she was nominated, Judge Baird admitted that she had hired an illegal alien as a nanny and, further, had not paid Social Security taxes on the wages.

At first, the report did not seem to damage Judge Baird's chances, and she even went through a full Senate confirmation hearing. But a week after the reports first surfaced, the newly inaugurated president bowed to pressure from Senate Democrats, who reported a flood of complaints from constituents and asked her to withdraw.

Mr. Bush's spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday the current situation is "totally different" from Judge Baird's case because Mrs. Mercado was not an employee in the Chavez home.

"Our nation has a long history of people engaging in acts of compassion and helping out people in times of trouble or in moments of need, and that's important," Mr. Fleischer said at a briefing largely dominated by questions about Mrs. Chavez. "And that is part of, I think, what has happened here a significant part … that's one of the reasons the president-elect retains that confidence, just as he indicated."

But the case had one echo of the Baird imbroglio yesterday, when reporters noted that New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman once had admitted to hiring two illegal immigrants as domestic workers. Mrs. Whitman, now the nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, admitted the problem in the wake of the Baird nomination, when she was first running for governor.

Because she had long since revealed the case, and had been elected governor twice, it appeared unlikely yesterday that the news would have any effect on her nomination.

Mr. Bush's staff refused to say how the issue of Mrs. Mercado slipped past investigators combing the pasts of Cabinet nominees, known as the "vetting" process. The transition has made much of the tough questioning that prospective nominees undergo, and Mr. Fleischer yesterday said nominees were asked about domestic employees.

But he said investigators did not necessarily ask about every person a nominee may have helped or may have taken in as an act of charity.

"That is not the type of issue or question that would rise up to the level where it becomes an important part or any part of the interview process," Mr. Fleischer said.

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