WASHINGTON -- As the Senate Judiciary Committee concluded two weeks of often contentious hearings yesterday on Judge Clarence Thomas' fitness to serve on the Supreme Court, the panel's chairman promised to explore whether the confirmation process itself should be overhauled.
The committee chairman, Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., noted the widespread dissatisfaction and frustration with the hearings, especially among some of his fellow Democrats on the panel and some of those groups opposing Judge Thomas.
The senators and opponents complained that they had learned littleabout Judge Thomas because he was evidently coached to avoid answering questions in any way that would jeopardize his nomination.
Other committee members and witnesses complained that to win confirmation, Judge Thomas had disavowed his many speeches and writings that had taken a hard-edged conservative approach.
"Maybe we need new ground rules," Senator Biden said, pledging to hold hearings about the confirmation process. By looking to the future, his remarks were generally viewed as laying the groundwork for him to vote in favor of Judge Thomas, President Bush's choice to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall, the only black ever to serve on the high court.
Senator Biden said the 14-member committee could vote as early as next Friday on the Thomas nomination. Committee members and Senate staff aides have said that they expect Judge Thomas will be approved by the committee and go on to win confirmation by a wide margin in the full Senate, probably in time to join the court for the beginning of its fall term on Oct. 7.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a member of the committee, took to the Senate floor shortly after the hearings were closed yesterday to announce his support for Judge Thomas. "The nominee is intellectually, educationally and professionally qualified," he said.
Senator Specter had been viewed as the only one of six Republicans on the committee who might be persuaded to oppose the nomination.
Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., is expected to announce his support for Judge Thomas on Monday.
In endorsing Judge Thomas yesterday, Senator Specter said he thought it was important to have a black justice on the court.
It is unclear how the process could be changed to meet complaints that the nominee was unresponsive. The senators have the power to reject a nominee if answers are unsatisfactory, but they seem reluctant to do so for political reasons.
A spokesman for Senator Biden said that the chairman had some general ideas about how to change the process but did not want to discuss them until he heard testimony from a variety of scholars, lawyers and political scientists.
Senator Specter's endorsement means that all six Republican committee members are expected to approve the nomination, in addition to Senator DeConcini.
Among those who are expected to oppose the nomination, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio lead the list. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont is regarded as a probable opponent.
Senator Biden has said that even if the committee were to divide evenly on a nomination, he would send the nomination on to the