3-hour drama dropped curtain on vote

October 09, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WAHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Just off the Senate floor, a small rank of senators and key aides walked together, somewhat solemnly, past the familiar Ohio Clock, went into the Howard Baker Room and sat down to try to figure out what had gone wrong in just a little over three hours.

It was after 3 o'clock then, and the hopes they had had at noon were fading at a noticeable and fretful pace. They had less than three hours to make a strategic choice, one that they knew might scuttle Clarence Thomas' chances to be a Supreme Court justice.

They needed a new strategy; the one worked out in an earlier round of meetings yesterday had not succeeded, they reluctantly acknowledged. The high hopes of a triumphant vote of 60 to 65 senators behind Judge Thomas' nomination in the coming final roll -- it was to be called at 6 p.m. -- were dead, for the moment at least.

The small gathering of pro-Thomas strategists would make the day's most important decision -- risking a potentially harmful delay. Left with no better alternative, they decided to forfeit the promised Senate vote. In the four hours or so of Senate negotiations that would follow, the worst fears in that room came true: A week's delay would loom threateningly before the final vote.

At midafternoon, it was not so much that the nomination itself had to be saved by the plotting in the Howard Baker Room. Matters had not gone that far. In fact, almost no one around the Senate floor and cloakrooms doubted that Judge Thomas still had the support of a majority.

But something crucial was waning: the Senate's commitment to that 6 o'clock vote. Sixteen to 18 "swing"senators, mostly Democrats -- the group in the Howard Baker Room was not sure of the exact number -- could not be counted on to support a roll-call vote at that hour.

Not voting as planned could mean much: The nomination would,have to wait a few days, perhaps several. The interval almost certainly wouldnot help Judge Thomas' chances and might even threaten them.

It would mean more days of keeping alive the wrenching controversy over Anita F. Hill, a former government aide to Judge Thomas who had gone public Sunday with her accusation that the nominee made sexual overtures to her years ago.

And the delay also could mean that Judge Thomas would have to testify under oath again to answer the most searing charges to arise in the 100 days since his nomination.

What most agitated that small gathering of Thomas supporters was that Judge Thomas might be rejected if the nominee's supporters insisted on voting at 6.

That, in fact, turned out to be the decisive worry.

The telephones in the Howard Baker Room got busy. Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., who had led the fight for Judge Thomas' nomination throughout, talked to Judge Thomas, and White House lobbyist Frederick McClure called President Bush.

The message in both calls apparently was the same: The pro-Thomas forces could count only 41 senators willing to go ahead with the vote. They would need 51 if the Senate put the matter to a parliamentary test. A few more than 41 votes might be garnered, but not 10 more, the group agreed.

Everyone in the room at that point knew that Mr. Dole could go out on the Senate floor and insist that Judge Thomas' nomination be voted on as scheduled. The Senate had promised just that, and Mr. Dole was in a position to hold the chamber to that vow.

However, too many of the group of 16 to 18 senators who held sway over yesterday's proceedings had let it be known that if they were forced to vote Judge Thomas up or down last evening, they would vote against him, despite the fact that many of them had said publicly before Ms. Hill's accusations became known that they were for Judge Thomas.

Too many senators, flooded by telephone calls from their home states about those accusations, had begun to insist privately and publicly that what Ms. Hill had said had to be investigated before a vote.

What galvanized that sentiment, senator after senator said yesterday, was Ms. Hill's own steady, deliberate recital of her grievances at midday Monday in a nationally televised news conference from Norman, Okla., where she is a law professor at the University of Oklahoma.

It had taken about a day, until midday yesterday, for that event to have its maximum impact on the Senate. Until it reached that level in senatorial perceptions, a real likelihood remained that the whole matter could be closed out with the vote set for 6 p.m.

Senators had not taken much notice of the Hill accusations when they started circulating Saturday night. At 9 p.m. Saturday, most news organizations began to learn about the former Thomas aide and her complaints against him. It was at that hour that Newsday reporter Timothy Phelps' "scoop" began appearing on a syndicated news wire. Mr. Phelps said yesterday that he had been working on the story for "a long time."

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