WASHINGTON -- By a 13-1 vote yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed David H. Souter for a pivotal seat on the Supreme Court as nearly all the committee's liberal Democrats declined to join civil rights and women's groups in opposing the nomination.
The Senate is expected to confirm Mr. Souter, a federal appeals judge, by an overwhelming vote next week.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., predicted that President Bush's 51-year-old nominee would get about 90 votes in the 100-member Senate. So far only six senators, all Democrats, have announced their opposition to Judge Souter, who would replace the court's longtime liberal leader, Justice William J. Brennan Jr.
Of the committee members, only Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., rejected Judge Souter. He protested that Judge Souter's elevation to the closely divided Supreme Court would "solidify a 5-4 anti-civil rights, anti-privacy majority inclined to turn the clock back on the historic progress of recent decades. . . . I hope I am wrong. But I fear I am right."
But liberal Democrats Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Howard M.Metzenbaum of Ohio, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, Paul Simon of Illinois and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, while expressing misgivings about Judge Souter, said he was intelligent, fair, open-minded and about as acceptable a Supreme Court candidate as they could expect from the current administration.
"His vision of the Constitution is not mine," Mr. Biden said. "But it is clearly not that of the court's hard-line conservatives, either."
"We probably have as moderate a choice as George Bush could send to the Senate," observed Mr. Simon, who speculated that, contrary to the fears of women's groups, Judge Souter would uphold Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 precedent that granted women a right to abortion.
Mr. Simon said that, rather than cast "a symbolic vote that would please some of my friends," he decided to "send a signal to the president that if he shows some moderation, he can pick up some votes for his nominees in the Senate."
Mr. Metzenbaum said that while no one knew how Judge Souter would vote on issues of discrimination, abortion and religion, "sometimes you have to vote with your instincts. . . . For the sake of the women of this country, minorities and those who revere the court's protection, I hope I'm not wrong."
During three days of testimony this month, Judge Souter said he supported key rulings of the liberal Warren court of the 1950s and 1960s on racial discrimination, equal legislative representation, and free speech and press. At the same time, he said he disagreed with narrow constitutional interpretations espoused by conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.
But Judge Souter refused to say whether the constitutional right of privacy covers unmarried women or a pregnant woman's right to choose abortion. He also declined to say how much protection against discrimination the Constitution provides to women or how strong he believes the "wall of separation" between church and state ought to be.
After yesterday's vote, Judith Lichtman, president of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, expressed disappointment.
"In 1990, on the edge of the 21st century, it should be unthinkable that the United States Senate could confirm a nominee who does not fully endorse women's constitutional and legal rights," she said.
Privately, leaders of women's groups said they were disturbed that three major civil rights groups -- the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Alliance for Justice -- did not join the opposition until after the committee hearings.
Some conservative Republicans also are apprehensive.
"I will readily admit that aspects of Judge Souter's testimony were of little comfort to legal conservatives," said Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey, R-N.H., before voting for Judge Souter.
Mr. Biden said the Senate could not act in time for the opening of the Supreme Court's new term on Monday.
That means Judge Souter is unlikely to participate in some or all of the 12 cases to be argued next week, raising the possibility that the eight current justices could split 4-4. If that happens, the court could order reargument to permit Judge Souter a chance to break the tie.