WASHINGTON -- As the Senate opened formal floor debate yesterday on whether to confirm Judge Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, a 12th Democratic senator announced his support for President Bush's nominee, all but assuring his confirmation.
Sen. Wyche Fowler of Georgia -- Judge Thomas' birthplace -- declared his intention to support the judge. Mr. Fowler's commitment brought the total of known pro-Thomas votes in the 100-member Senate to a minimum of 52; of 43 Republicans in the Senate, 40 are committed to supporting the judge.
The black conservative's chief sponsor in the Senate, Missouri Republican John C. Danforth, has estimated that about 60 senators will support Judge Thomas when the formal vote is taken at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
During the first of four scheduled days of debate, first-time announcements of opposition to Judge Thomas -- all expected -- came from Democratic Sens. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island and Terry Sanford of North Carolina.
The debate itself began in a nearly empty Senate chamber. Senators who opposed Judge Thomas raised accusations that during his five days of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he had repeatedly avoided responding to questions about his views and had sought to detach himself from views he had previously expressed as an executive-branch appointee of the Reagan and Bush administrations.
In particular, Judge Thomas' critics yesterday came down heavily on his refusal to let the committee know where he stood on the issue of abortion, and particularly on the case of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling in 1973 that legalized abortion.
Mr. Inouye said Judge Thomas' testimony had amounted to "a tangled web of evasion and skillful sidestepping." The judge's assertion that he had never discussed the Roe case with anyone, the senator said, was "beyond belief."
He could not vote to confirm Judge Thomas, he said, because "my doubts are too numerous and the stakes are too high."
Two of the most insistent Democratic questioners on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio, were two of his harshest critics yesterday.
"It is transparently clear that Judge Thomas was not defending his impartiality but defending his prospects for confirmation," Mr. Kennedy said, adding that the judge had "cloaked himself in more moderate positions than his record supported."
Mr. Metzenbaum asked those of his colleagues who planned to vote for Judge Thomas to consider changing their minds. "No senator should be stampeded into voting for this nomination," he said. "Go back and look at the record. Go back and see what he said and see what he didn't say. If you do that you may reconsider."
Mr. Danforth, in an emotional rebuttal, recalled that he had known Judge Thomas -- a former staff aide of the senator's -- for 17 years and said that the nominee "is his own person," not one "who is going to trim his positions to make people happy."