WASHINGTON -- For Bill Richardson, his two worst nightmares have come true: $2 gasoline and another security scandal at a nuclear weapons lab. Still, he continues to have the confidence of his boss, the president.
President Clinton said Thursday he was not surprised at the grilling Richardson received on Capitol Hill because of the severity of the security breach at the Los Alamos weapons lab, but added, ''I do have confidence in him.''
''He's dealt with (the security problems) in a forthright and aggressive manner,'' said Clinton in remarks to reporters at the White House.
In a span of 10 days, Clinton's affable and ambitious energy secretary has gone from someone viewed as a Mr. Fix It -- and possible Democratic vice presidential candidate -- to being the target of unusually angry congressional attacks.
And Richardson is getting singed by Republicans and Democrats alike.
''You've lost all credibility,'' Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Richardson on Wednesday as he answered questions about the latest security breakdown at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons lab.
While Richardson sought to convince senators that he had worked feverishly over the past year to fix security shortcomings in his department, Shelby shot back that it was Richardson who was part of the problem.
''Look in the mirror,'' the senator fumed.
It was almost expected from Shelby, a conservative who had made clear he believes Richardson should resign. But a broadside from Sen. Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat with 48 years in the Senate, stunned the hearing room.
''You have shown an extreme contempt ... of this Congress,'' Byrd lectured Richardson, who had spent 14 years as a congressman from New Mexico before becoming ambassador to the United Nations and two years ago energy secretary.
Byrd told Richardson he had made numerous assurances, but had not followed through. Another rub: Richardson didn't show up for a hearing on the Los Alamos problem last week, angering senators.
''You've had a bright and brilliant career. But you will never again receive the support of the Senate of the United States for any office to which you might be appointed. It's gone. You've squandered your treasure,'' Byrd said.
Flanked by three of his top assistants, Richardson sat quietly, taken aback by the intensely personal tone of Byrd's words. Although at times combative, Richardson was mostly subdued, knowing that for all purposes he was in the dock and nothing he might say would help.
''In two years I've done more on security than has been done in the last 20 years,'' he told the senators. But they were in no mood for such explanations.
It is not only the Los Alamos problem that has made this a summer of dread for Richardson, but also soaring gasoline prices. An astute politician, Richardson was quick this week to declare that he would spend all his time focusing on two issues: Los Alamos and bringing down the price of gasoline.
But on neither is he likely to have much control over what happens in the months ahead.
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