WASHINGTON -- The Senate Judiciary Committee deadlocked 7-7 yesterday on whether to recommend Senate confirmation of Judge Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court justice and sent the matter to the full Senate without recommendation.
Supporters of Judge Thomas were obviously uneasy over the tie vote -- there has never before been a tie vote in the committee on a Supreme Court nomination, and no nominee has ever won confirmation by the full Senate without having first won the committee's recommendation.
But the pro-Thomas forces -- and even some of the Democratic senators on the committee who opposed confirmation of President Bush's nominee -- were saying after the committee vote that they still expected the judge to be confirmed by the full Senate by the end of next week. They acknowledged, however, that a Thomas victory was no sure thing and that the margin of such a victory would be narrow.
"I think the probability is he will be approved," said Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill. But he added, "I don't think anything is in concrete."
Indeed, Mr. Simon voted against even sending the issue to the Senate for a final vote. He pointed out after the tie vote that Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the Democratic chairman of the committee, had ruled that under committee rules, the vote "to favorably report Mr. Thomas to the Senate" had failed. But Mr. Biden had said at the outset of yesterday's committee meeting that he planned to send the issue to the full Senate whatever the committee vote, and the committee supported him with a 13-1 vote, Mr. Simon alone dissenting.
At the White House, Mr. Bush expressed confidence that his nominee would be confirmed. "It'll be all right," he said, adding, "I must say I'd like to see the clear will of the American people be followed in this one."
But opponents of Judge Thomas' confirmation promised a "full-court press," as one put it, to win the votes of senators who have not declared their position -- and to attempt to change the minds of some who have.
Said Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the lobbying coalition that is leading the campaign against Judge Thomas, "A nomination that was seen for months as a done deal is now a very contested nomination."
The Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- the major black civil rights organization opposed to Judge Thomas' confirmation -- issued a statement from the NAACP's Baltimore headquarters in which he said that the committee vote "clearly shows there are grave reservations about placing [Judge Thomas] on the Supreme Court. . . . As we opposed him in the committee hearings, we will continue to oppose him as the full Senate debates the nomination."
As of yesterday, Judge Thomas appeared to have, by the thinnest of margins, a Senate majority on his side. Ten of the 57 Democrats in the Senate have declared or indicated their support of him. None of the Senate's 43 Republicans has given any public signal of opposing the 43-year-old appeals court judge. Sen. John C. Danforth, the Missouri Republican who has been Judge Thomas' chief sponsor throughout the confirmation fight, said that 41 of his party colleagues were committed to supporting the nominee.
By those counts, the 100-member Senate would confirm the nominee next week with a 51-vote majority -- a winning margin of one vote. In case of a tie vote, the president of the Senate, Vice President Dan Quayle, would cast the deciding ballot.
The committee vote was along party lines, with one exception: Democrat Dennis DeConcini of Arizona joined the panel's six Republicans in voting for Judge Thomas, while the remaining seven Democrats voted against the nominee.
Before the vote, two of the committee's most outspoken criticof Judge Thomas explained their positions.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., recalled Judge Thomasstatement during his five days of testimony that he had never discussed with any other human being Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
"If senators buy the view that Justice Thomas, as a member of the Supreme Court, will approach Roe vs. Wade with an open mind, there is a bridge in Brooklyn they might also like to buy," Mr. Kennedy said.
Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, defended the intensity with which he had questioned Judge Thomas. "Clarence Thomas is not being scrutinized closely because of the color of his skin," the senator said. "He is being scrutinized closely so that we can determine whether he will move a conservative Supreme Court farther to the right."
But Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, accused Democrats on the committee of applying "a liberal set of litmus tests that are operating to the denigration of minorities in this country."
Although the Senate could vote on the confirmation of Judge Thomas as early as Thursday, interest groups opposed to his confirmation were pressuring senators to extend
the period before the vote by seeking more time to study the complete Judiciary Committee record, which Mr. Biden said he would send to the Senate on Tuesday. A delay, anti-Thomas lobbyists admitted, would give them more time to work on senators.
There was also talk of an anti-Thomas filibuster. Mr. Simon said that he didn't "exclude that possibility," but he added that he had "no plans" to lead it.
Mr. Hatch was scornful. "Wouldn't that be just the greatest irony of all?" he said. "Can you imagine liberals talking about filibustering the second black nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States of America? Shame!"