The officials made it clear they could happily live with the appointment of Tom Foley, the House Speaker, as a fact-finding representative, because he was less sympathetic to the IRA than many of his Democratic colleagues and could help the campaign to stem the flow of US funds to militant Irish republicans.
While welcoming the apparent downgrading of any US appointment from 'peace envoy' to fact- finder, British officials pointed out that Mr Foley had been very 'robust' in his criticism of the IRA and of terrorism. It is recalled in Washington that after the IRA's assassination in 1990 of the MP Ian Gow, Mr Foley left the Speaker's chair to issue a personal condemnation. Other members of the Democratic Party, the officials said, were not so helpful.
It was still unclear yesterday where the suggestion of Mr Foley had come from, as the Speaker's office and the White House continued to deny his name had been put forward. The fact that it seems to have originated in British press reports led to speculation that it was the British government that had floated the name of Mr Foley - because if Mr Clinton was going to appoint a representative anyway, the Speaker would at least represent less of a threat than others.
A more plausible clue may lie in Mr Foley's close friendship with John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, whom he met when he led a congressional mission to Northern Ireland in 1991. Mr Hume is often in Washington and is said to have constant access to the Speaker. It now emerges that Mr Hume will be in Washington during Mr Major's visit tomorrow.
Mr Major is due to meet Mr Foley - a Catholic deeply distrusted by the Ulster Unionists - tomorrow morning. The White House said yesterday that any appointment would be made in consultation with the parties involved. 'The President has expressed a willingness to appoint a special envoy if the parties to the conflict in Northern Ireland thought it would be helpful,' said a spokeswoman. 'He's reviewing the issue and no decisions have been made yet,' she added.
Mr Hume, an architect of the Anglo-Irish agreement, has been instrumental in campaigning to stem US funds to the IRA. British officials hope that as a result of any fact-finding mission, Mr Foley will help to 'educate' the US public, who they complain remain ignorant of the facts.