It's up to full Senate The truth remains a question Committee's work over

time to take sides.

October 14, 1991|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Evening Sun Staff

Playing "To Tell the Truth" with Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, the Senate Judiciary Committee has succeeded only in stumping itself.

Will the real Thomas . . . or Hill . . . stand up before the Senate votes tomorrow?

Not likely. The committee concluded its work early today without shaking either Thomas or his accuser. The standoff hasn't helped Thomas because Hill's allegations of sexual harassment appear to have loosened his grip on the Supreme Court seat vacated by Thurgood Marshall.

Thomas was believed to have about 55 votes for confirmation a week ago. But as of yesterday, Senate Republican leader Robert J. Dole said, "I think it's a very close call."

Senators who may be reconsidering their support for Thomas are keeping quiet -- perhaps hoping their decision will be made easier by a last-minute revelation. Thomas has refused to take the Senate off the hook by withdrawing; he's still backed by the White House.

Thomas' supporters are on the defensive. Ever since Hill made her stunning opening statement before the committee last week, Republican panel members have been treading a fine line, trying to attack her credibility without going overboard and producing a backlash of sympathy.

Republican efforts to paint Thomas as a victim and a man of impeccable character have been blunted by Hill's appeal as a victim of harassment and a person of equal character. Democrats have helped Hill with their gentle questions and statements of sympathy.

The committee partisanship has spilled over into interviews with news media that are intended, as much as the posturing during the hearings, to persuade the public and the Senate. On yesterday's news talk shows, Republican supporters of Thomas and his Democratic critics sought to lay out the issues they hope will sway the vote.

Portraying Thomas as the victim of a nomination procedure run amok, Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., said on CBS' Face the Nation, "This is not the American system. This is a perversion of it."

But, said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., speaking on the same show, "She has nothing to gain by lying."

Dole, speaking on ABC, said of Thomas: ". . . I do think he should have the benefit of a doubt."

But, said Sen. Herbert H. Kohl, D-Wis., speaking on National Public Radio, "Why vote for a Supreme Court justice when there is any doubt in your mind?"

Back and forth the arguments go, each side as tenacious as Jimmy Connors, neither conceding a point.

Addressing a central argument against Hill, that she failed to file charges against Thomas or quit his employ, committee chairman Joseph R. Biden, D-Del., said: "I don't understand why we have such a problem understanding the pattern of a victimized person."

But, said Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., noting other women haven't testified to harassment by Thomas, "There is also a pattern of the harasser, [it's] seldom a single thing."

The disclosure by Hill's allies that she had taken and passed a polygraph test also provoked varied reactions, even among Democrats.

"I find, generally, people who are lying don't volunteer to take a lie detector test," Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., said on NBC.

Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., a Thomas supporter, said, however, "That's one more thing on the scale of the credibility of Miss Hill that in my opinion is going to be inconsequential."

Each side is aware it is playing to an audience larger than the Senate. "The true jury is the American people and they have been watching this," Danforth said.

A poll by ABC News and the Washington Post, released before yesterday's round of testimony, found 55 percent didn't believe Hill's charges, comforting Thomas' supporters. But women were less likely than men to support Thomas, a division that could spell trouble for the nominee if it deepens.

Women's rights groups, already opposed to Thomas because of his presumed anti-abortion views, are beating the drum for Hill, making it difficult for Democratic senators who might vote for him. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md, has been leading the way with strong statements questioning the Senate's treatment of Hill's allegations.

On ABC television, she renewed her criticism of Thomas and complained that the panel had not been as tough with Thomas the day before as it had been with Hill.

". . . There should have been the same pointed line of questioning about Judge Thomas," she said.

But, like many other senators, she wasn't ready to predict the vote. "I think it's difficult to say."

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