Whichever way Thomas nomination goes, senators are feeling the heat

October 09, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- It was the Senate's turn to feel the heat, and members were scrambling for cover yesterday anywhere they could find it.

"Excuse me," said a Washington political consultant, when a reporter called to ask what the Senate should do about the Clarence Thomas nomination. "There's somebody on my other line with the same question and he's got 'Senator' in front of his name."

After a day of high drama on the Senate floor and tortured dealing in the back rooms, senators agreed to postpone a vote for a week in order to hear testimony by an Oklahoma law professor, Anita F. Hill, about alleged sexual harassment by the Supreme Court nominee.

But if the 100-day Thomas confirmation fight is nearing an end, the trial for members of the Senate may have only begun.

"Senators will hear from their daughters, their wives, their girlfriends and their friends," said Wendy Sherman, a Democratic media consultant and former Senate aide. "There is a growing outrage on behalf of women that the Senate does not seem to be taking their concerns seriously."

Despite the eleventh-hour decision to re-open the Thomas hearings, senators may still face the scorn of voters, especially women, who feel the Senate failed to give proper weight to the allegations against President Bush's judicial nominee during the confirmation process. Ms. Hill ultimately was forced to bypass the Senate Judiciary Committee and take her case directly to the public, via a dramatic, nationally televised press conference in Oklahoma.

The Thomas struggle may serve to intensify a political awakening among women that began in 1989 with the Supreme Court's decision in the Webster case giving states new authority to limit abortion. The accusations against Judge Thomas, when added to Mr. Bush's opposition to abortion and to family-leave legislation, could feed a revolt among women that has the potential to shatter the Republican coalition of social conservatives and moderate suburbanites that has dominated American politics since the 1970s.

"You've seen pro-choice women being increasingly mobilized," said Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster. "That's the big impact of this issue. It just adds fuel to that fire."

But politicians said the biggest loser in the nomination struggle, at least for now, was not likely to be Mr. Bush but the Senate and some of its leading members, especially Senate Judiciary Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., and other committee members, who seemed unable to grasp the explosive significance of sexual harassment allegations against a man who at the time was charged with keeping all workplaces in America free of sex discrimination.

"Why didn't they [Senate Democrats] raise it earlier?" asked Ann Stone, who heads Republicans for Choice, an abortion-rights group that is attempting to reverse the GOP's anti-abortion platform.

A Democratic pollster, Celinda Lake, said the highly visible role assumed by Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., as chief advocate for the nomination of his friend and former aide had helped Mr. Bush to remain in the background during the Thomas fight and stay free from much of the political fallout.

The next election may still be a year away, but the Thomas imbroglio could not have come at a more inopportune time for senators. Recent revelations of check-bouncing and meal tab-dodging by members of the House of Representatives have strained the public's patience with Congress to the breaking point.

Now, as a result of the allegations against Judge Thomas, some senators, mainly Democrats, face an additional problem. They must choose between powerful political forces in their home states, and either way they go, they're likely to alienate some past supporters.

On one side are their black constituents, many of whom quietly support the Thomas nomination; on the other side, a more vocal, and potentially larger, group: women outraged over the allegations against President Bush's judicial nominee.

The most conflicted senators of all may well be some potentially vulnerable Democrats running for re-election next year. Regarded from the outset as the key to the Thomas nomination, they were elected in 1986, largely on the combined strength of blacks and suburban white voters, including many women. They include freshmen Terry Sanford of North Carolina, Wyche Fowler of Georgia, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama and Bob Graham of Florida, as well as veterans Timothy E. Wirth of Colorado and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut.

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By delaying the vote, Democrats clearly hoped, at the very least, to be able to make a convincing argument that they had carefully weighed the accusations against Judge Thomas, even if the nominee was ultimately confirmed.

But privately, some Democratic senators were being counseled that putting off the vote wasn't likely to help much with angry constituents. Voters who choose to believe Ms. Hill's charges over Judge Thomas' denials, they were told, will be angry whether the vote is postponed or not.

In that case, the wiser course would be to go ahead with the vote, rather than feed the public's growing conviction that Congress lacks the will to perform its job effectively.

"If it won't change the outcome, is it worth the delay?" is how one Democratic consultant advised a senator.

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