Senate panel concludes Thomas hearing Senate approval of court nominee still appears likely

October 14, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun Sun correspondent Lyle Denniston contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- After three days of lurid and conflicting testimony, after phone calls from angry constituents, after pleas from interest groups, the Senate still appears poised to support the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas.

The indications are preliminary, and, given the volatile nature of the controversy surrounding Judge Thomas, subject to quick reversal. But a survey of Senate Judiciary Committee members, lobbyists, and independent nose counters suggests that tomorrow's scheduled vote will hand the judge a narrow margin of victory.

"He's going to prevail," said Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., a Thomas supporter, appearing yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press." Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., an opponent, agreed: "I think that is probable."

Although Mr. Simpson and Mr. Simon sit on opposite sides of this nomination, they echo feelings expressed by other senators -- that they will never sort out the conflicting tales told by Judge Thomas and his accuser, law professor Anita F. Hill, and that, given this fact, it would be irresponsible to reject a Supreme Court nominee because of the unsubstantiated allegations of one individual.

"I suppose that for myself, unless there is really further corroborating evidence of a strong nature, one has to ask themselves do we see a nominee destroyed just by evidence of one person?" said Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum, R-Kan, one of two women in the Senate, in an appearance on the same program.

"At this point, I don't think it's strong enough," she continued, expressing hesitation over Ms. Hill's charges that she was sexually harassed by Judge Thomas, given that Ms. Hill continued to work with him.

"The charges don't quite match the actions," Ms. Kassebaum said. "I would have thought she would have just left the employment."

Ms. Kassebaum is considered a bellwether for the fate of the Thomas nomination. Although she had said she would support the nomination before word leaked of Ms. Hill's allegations, her reputation as a moderate Republican and her status as a woman have set her up, in the words of one anti-Thomas lobbyist, "as a vote to watch."

The Senate's other woman, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., had announced her opposition to the nomination before the controversy. On ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley," she reiterated the reason for her decision, which she said was triggered partly because of his "silent and evasive" tactics when questioned by Judiciary Committee members about abortion during earlier testimony.

In the corridors outside the Senate Caucus Room, the opposing interpretations over what might prove decisive with the full Senate, if the issue of who was lying could not be settled by the reopened hearing, were being debated.

Anti-Thomas senators and their aides were arguing that the Senate would put its focus back on the political meaning of a vote for or against the embattled nominee and would calculate that the "safe" vote was a no vote precisely because of the cloud raised over his character, and because legions of women voters would be offended by a yes vote -- and would feel that way for years.

Pro-Thomas senators and their aides were contending that the issue was now between Mr. Thomas and the Senate's process of reviewing Supreme Court nominees and that senators would conclude the "safe" vote was to vote for Judge Thomas rather than seeming to validate the process that had so besmirched his name.

In small gatherings of senators, aides, lobbyists and reporters, the talk appeared to be dominantly about what it would take to swing the dozen or so Democratic senators who were once in favor of Judge Thomas but who wanted to hold off a final vote until Ms. Hill's accusations had been explored fully by the committee.

In the offices of other bellwethers, public response appeared to be running in favor of Judge Thomas. The office of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., said that phone calls there had been running 3 to 1 in favor of the judge.

Mr. Lieberman is among a handful of Democrats to have announced their support for Judge Thomas -- although, like all such Democrats, Mr. Lieberman has reserved the right to change his mind.

In the office of another Democrat -- Sen. Wyche Fowler of Judge Thomas' home state of Georgia -- phone calls are running "way ahead" for the nominee, said one staffer.

While lawmakers and aides were quick to insist that tomorrow's vote would not necessarily hew to public opinion, no one was heard to say that the voters' opinions were irrelevant.

"Basically, these guys are going to what comes easiest. If that means the easiest thing to do is to vote for Judge Thomas, then that's what they'll do," said one Republican aide.

Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., a member of the panel who opposes the nomination, put it only a little differently: "It's not as if we're going to take a poll and vote that way . . . but public perception is going to play a big role, no doubt about it."

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