Clarke to Remain in Post While New Nominee Sought

WASHINGTON -- Robert L. Clarke took off Thursday for his home away from home in New Mexico, a day after his nomination to a second term as Comptroller of the Currency was crushed in the Senate Banking Committee.

Mr. Clarke is spending a long weekend in Santa Fe, out of the spotlight. But in a brief statement, he pledged to be back Tuesday.

Under the law, Mr. Clarke can remain in office until President Bush finds another nominee. Most insiders expect a replacement to be named within a couple of months.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed," Mr. Clarke's statement said. "However, I believe it is essential that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency continue to have leadership during this critical period for banks. For that reason, I have agreed to continue serving as Comptroller to provide continuity to the agency."

True to form, Mr. Clarke didn't make any waves. He turned down requests for interviews, and his statement took jabs at no one, not even his nemesis, Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr., D-Mich., the committee chairman who led the opposition.

If the President doesn't turn up another nominee, the administration probably would elevate a senior agency staffer to acting Comptroller. The leading candidate inside the agency is Steve Steinbrink, its top supervisor.

The administration, which was taken by surprise by the vote, hasn't yet floated the names of new candidates.

President Bush nominated Mr. Clarke in January after his first term expired. Sen. Riegle sat on the nomination for months while his staff investigated the failures of the Bank of New England and units of First RepublicBank Corp.

Mr. Clarke's partisans privately bristled Thursday at Sen. Riegle's handling of the confirmation hearings, asserting that the Comptroller was not given enough chance to rebut attacks that he was first too lax in supervising banks, then too zealous during his six-year tenure.

"I really feel sorry for him," said a long-time career employee in the Comptroller's office. "For good or for bad, he did what he did, but I hate to see him treated this way."

It was widely rumored that Sen. Riegle had made killing this nomination a personal quest, lobbying his fellow Democrats to reject the nomination.

They did -- even the four Democrats who sources said were contacted by President Bush on the eve of the vote: Alan Dixon of Illinois, Bob Graham of Florida, Terry Sanford of North Carolina, and Richard Bryan of Nevada. A person close to Mr. Clarke maintained that the four senators promised to support the nomination if a fifth Democrat could be swayed. That didn't happen.

Mr. Clarke himself had promises of support from two Democrats -- which would have been enough to turn the 12-to-9 vote in his favor -- only to see them vote against him, this source maintained.

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