The US in transition: The economy: Senators stroke purring Bentsen into Treasury

WHOEVER said the US Senate wasn't the cosiest club in the world? Yesterday, in a display of unctuous camaraderie remarkable even by its own standards, the Senate Finance Committee unanimously approved Lloyd Bentsen as Treasury Secretary in 17 minutes flat, before even the most cursory inquiry as to what he might actually do in the job.

No offence is meant to Mr Bentsen, a man of undoubted and proven merit. But it was a scene to make the blood boil of anyone who would reform Capitol Hill; a foregone conclusion worked out by a small, all-male, all-white and mostly elderly group of senators in which a nominee and his supposed interrogators exchanged compliments like the finest frankincense.

In reality, of course, nothing less was to be expected. From 1986 until last month's summons by president-elect Bill Clinton to higher things, Mr Bentsen had been chairman of the committee which yesterday recommended his confirmation; to have queried his selection, let alone reject it, would have been akin to the College of Cardinals throwing out the Pope.

In the event, not a whiff of lese-majeste was in the air. 'There is no man I respect more than Lloyd Bentsen,' oozed Democratic Senator Max Baucus of Montana in introduction. From the Republicans too it was the same sweet song: 'You're guaranteed my vote in advance,' purred Senator Phil Gramm, Mr Bentsen's colleague from Texas.

And, owlishly graceful and courtly as ever, Mr Bentsen responded with a line that could have come from an after-dinner speech at the Athenaeum: 'All this reminds me of the story of the old gentleman who received such a generous introduction - 'Be not surprised,' he said, 'It is but I' ' Thus does the US Senate treat its own.

For every Clinton nominee, the story has been the same. All have been spared embarrassment, even that unrepentant lobbyist and power- broker, Ron Brown, whose kidglove treatment during his hearing as Commerce Secretary last week had the New York Times spluttering with rage.

Yesterday, there was ample opportunity to embarrass the 71-year-old Mr Bentsen, not least over his sponsorship last year of a bill cutting middle-class taxes which was vetoed by President Bush. Mr Clinton, of course, is rowing back from his campaign promise of exactly such a fiscal boost as fast as he decently can. But Mr Bentsen blandly said no decision had yet been taken.

Just possibly, however, there may be surprises in store. Today sees the turn of Warren Christopher, that other great designated patriarch of the incoming administration. The Associated Press has unearthed an embarrassing 1960s memo suggesting that the 68- year-old Mr Christopher, the secretary of state-to-be who is ascribed almost saint-like qualities by the press, may have later concealed knowledge of clandestine army surveillance of anti-Vietnam war agitators, when he was deputy attorney-general under President Lyndon Johnson.

The revelation has had Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff members and Christopher aides scrambling in panic. But if yesterday's proceedings are anything to go by, the damage control will be successful. Mr Christopher probably need lose no sleep. But he may not quite be confirmed without a question.

Andrew Marr, page 21

(Photograph omitted)

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