WASHINGTON -- Lobbyists for and against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas competed yesterday to win over two key senators -- one from Delaware, the other from Alabama -- as the Senate Judiciary Committee neared a vote.
The targets of the last-minute jockeying were Democratic Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Howell Heflin of Alabama. Mr. Biden is the Judiciary Committee chairman, and Mr. Heflin is a member of the panel.
The committee may vote tomorrow or early next week. Its members have been locked in an internal debate for several days over when to meet to consider Judge Thomas' nomination to succeed retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall.
It will be up to Senate leaders to schedule a final vote of the full Senate on Judge Thomas, but sentiment appears to be fairly strongly in favor of having that vote sometime next week to assure that Judge Thomas could be on the court when its new term opens a week from Monday.
At this point, there appears to be little doubt here that the nominee will win Senate approval.
The vote in the Judiciary Committee is thought to be likely to influence the debate on the nominee, and it could slow down the process if Judge Thomas does not emerge from the panel with clear-cut majority support among its 14 members.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Heflin are considered the keys to the committee vote. On Capitol Hill and in the downtown offices of groups working on the nomination fight, a common remark yesterday was: "As Heflin goes, so goes Biden."
The reason for that, as one civil rights activist said, speaking on condition of anonymity, was that Mr. Heflin is likely to make his position known first, and his vote would probably be enough to tip Mr. Biden's vote the same way.
"Heflin truly is the key person," that advocate remarked. "The dynamic [of Senate action] could be very much affected by whether Heflin declares, and how he declares."
Part of that "dynamic" is that a "no" vote by Mr. Heflin might indicate that other Southern Democrats might line up against the nominee, too. Since Judge Thomas is expected to be supported most, if not all, of the Senate's 43 Republicans, opponents would be able to draw a sizable vote against him only if a number of southern Democrats vote "no." The Senate has 57 Democrats.
But, more importantly, if Mr. Heflin decides to vote against the rTC nominee in the committee, that very likely would mean -- without counting Mr. Biden either way -- six votes against Judge Thomas, compared with seven likely votes in his favor. The chairman would then be in a position to give Judge Thomas an 8-6 majority or to make it a 7-7 tie.
Although aides to Mr. Biden declined to discuss his inclinations, it is widely expected that he would be more inclined to make it a tie than to to be the one who had given Judge Thomas a majority 8-6 margin. Judge Thomas' supporters concede, as one Republican senator's aide remarked yesterday, that a tie vote is a "theoretical possibility."
The pro-Thomas forces have indicated for several days that they thought Mr. Biden might be leaning their way, but anti-Thomas activists have continued to insist that Mr. Biden's vote is still uncertain and, to them, seems to depend mainly on how Mr. Heflin decides.