Senate faced with 'lose-lose' choice in Thomas vote Final decision certain not to please everyone

October 13, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- For two days, the gilded rafters of the Senate Caucus Room have reverberated with lurid tales of sleaze and sex and countercharges of lies and betrayal.

Now, as the Senate reckons with Tuesday's impending vote on Judge Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court nomination, it finds itself at a crossroads, forced to choose not just between the contradictory stories of Judge Thomas and his accusers, but, in effect, between competing blocs of voters and interests.

"It's lose-lose for everyone," thundered Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., Judge Thomas' onetime mentor and present-day sponsor during the tortuous Senate confirmation process. "No matter what, the public will be outraged by what they see and what

we've done."

Put another way, the Senate will demonstrate anew that it can't please all the people all the time. Even as many women rallied to Professor Anita F. Hill's painful, arresting story of sexual

harassment, a number of lawmakers expressed a quiet fear -- that recent events also fed suspicions among many black Americans that, in the words of Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint, "there's a conspiracy at work to keep blacks from high office."

And so, the dilemma before the Senate centers on a few basic truths. The Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings will produce no pronouncements of innocence or guilt. Thus, concedes panel member Sen. Herbert Kohl, D-Wis., "Public perception is ultimately going to play a big part in how senators vote." That being the case, one Democratic pollster summarizes the dilemma before senators this way: "Who would you rather alienate? Blacks or women?"

The dilemma promises to be most excruciating for the handful of "swing" senators on whose votes Judge Thomas' nomination depends -- Northern Democrats like New York's Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Connecticut's Joseph Lieberman, who broke ranks to express their support for Judge Thomas; Southern Democrats like Louisiana's John Breaux and Alabama's Richard Shelby, who joined Republicans to form a majority coalition behind the Thomas nomination; and liberal Republicans like Maine's William S. Cohen, who announced his support for the nominee only after weeks in the "undecided" column.

The tone of the Judiciary Committee's weekend hearings has generated endless speculation among pols and pundits about the cross-cutting pressures on the senators. Among the theories: that Southern Democrats will be loath to alienate black voters by opposing Judge Thomas, that Judge Thomas' erstwhile supporters among the corps of Northern Democratic and Republican senators will have reason to think three times before voting for the judge, if only because women's organizations seem to have sunk deeper roots in their home states.

But those are the kinds of pressures politicians routinely deal with. What is hardly routine, a number of lawmakers suggest, is the impact these hearings may have had on the public's perception of the Senate itself.

"What a zoo," panel member Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. was heard to remark after a public fracas broke out yesterday between Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "I think it is a disgrace that these matters were not handled privately," said another Democratic panel member, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But the die was cast when we did our Keystone Kops routine with Hill's testimony. It's been downhill since."

Few senators have been heard to defend the handling of Ms. Hill's allegations, which purportedly described incidents that occurred while she worked with Judge Thomas at the Department of Education and at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Mr. Biden said that she offered her allegations to his staff on Sept. 12 but that her demand for anonymity made it impossible to investigate the claims until the week the committee voted on the nomination.

But there may have been other motives. In the weeks before the hearings, conservative groups threatened to attack three panel members: Mr. Biden, whose 1988 presidential campaign foundered on charges of plagiarism; Alan Cranston, D-Calif., embroiled in a favors-for-campaign-contributions scandal involving failed S&L owner Charles H. Keating Jr., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., whose very name has become synonymous with the senatorial high-life.

"There's no question that the system didn't work," said Democratic pollster Tubby Harrison. "At least part of that was because of timidity on the part of the [Democratic panel members] who feared political pressure [from blacks] and retribution from the conservatives."

Whatever the real reason, the panel's decision to ignore Ms. Hill's allegations maneuvered the Senate into a uniquely embarrassing situation. "Basically, they're men," said Representative Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., when asked to explain why the committee didn't delay its vote on the nomination to give it time to follow up on Ms. Hill's allegations. "They're men who don't take these things as seriously as they think they do."

If the root cause is as simple as chauvinism, then the Senate will pay a price for its bull-headedness. In theory, at least, the allegations could have been dealt with in private committee session and, if panel members had found the allegations persuasive, the resulting probable vote against confirmation would have been sufficient to doom Judge Thomas' chances on the Senate floor.

Instead, the panel deadlocked, 7-7, on the question of the judge's nomination and sent the matter to the Senate floor without recommendation. Next Tuesday, the Senate is scheduled to vote on the Thomas nomination -- but only after it, and the rest of the country, endures one of the most difficult public hearings it has ever had to sponsor.

"Whatever happens," said Mr. Hatch, "the Senate's going to be with a black eye."

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