WASHINGTON -- Three senators warned women's rights groups yesterday that they are not likely to get a Supreme Court nominee favorable to abortion if they should persuade the Senate to vote down Judge David H. Souter.
In fact, one of those senators contended, the feminist groups opposing Judge Souter's nomination now may be hurting their chances of defeating future court nominees who would be strongly and openly anti-abortion -- compared with Judge Souter, who has been silent on the issue.
The leaders of the organizations, however, stood their ground in sometimes angry confrontations with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, pressing what seems increasingly like a long-shot campaign against the New Hampshire jurist.
The committee is expected to end its hearings on Judge Souter today, and may vote late next week. A final vote by the full Senate could come early in October -- after the Supreme Court has started its new term, which begins Oct. 1.
Yesterday, the committee spent the day hearing alternating panels of opponents and supporters of the nominee. Senators paid the closest attention to and engaged in the most rigorous questioning of two panels of feminist leaders who urgently demanded that Judge Souter be voted down for failing to make a commitment to retain basic abortion rights declared by the 1973 ruling in Roe vs. Wade.
The nominee repeatedly refused to discuss that ruling, to analyze the underlying constitutional principles involved or to reveal his personal moral views on abortion.
Three senators on the committee, apparently trying to neutralize thatas the final issue, chose to bring out into the open an underlying possibility that has kept some of the nation's major civil rights groups on the sidelines this time: the prospect that President Bush would propose a nominee far more objectionable to liberals if Judge Souter is rejected.
Two of the senators reminded the witnesses that they personally supported abortion rights, but then went on to chastise the women's rights leaders for putting pressure on the Senate to vote against Judge Souter because of that issue alone.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., told Faye Wattleton, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, that "it is not realistic to expect -- if Judge Souter is turned down -- that we will find a nominee who will pass your test. It istotally unrealistic to expect President Bush to submit a nominee committed to Roe vs. Wade."
Another senator who favors abortion rights and noted that he pays dues to Planned Parenthood -- Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo. -- bluntly told the witnesses: "I really believe you're making a mistake on this one." He said there were going to be other court nominees that "you're really going to be in the trenches [against]," far less to feminists' liking than Judge Souter.
"I think you're hurting your cause."
A third panel member, abortion foe Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., told Ms. Wattleton Judge Souter had not made up his mind on the issue. The senator then asked rhetorically: "If you don't get Souter from this president, who else can you get?" Ms. Wattleton did not answer directly.