Justice nominee expected to face polite questioning over her qualifications

January 19, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Zoe Baird, the first woman ever named to b U.S. attorney general, appears before a Senate committee today bearing a political burden of proof: to show that she has not broken the law severely enough to forfeit her chance to be the government's top legal officer.

The 40-year-old corporate lawyer, her nomination apparently not seriously threatened so far, is due for polite, extensive questioning before the Senate Judiciary Committee starting this morning. She may have to return for more questioning Thursday.

A committee still smarting from criticism of its treatment of Anita Hill when she was a witness against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas has seemed intent on reacting more sensitively to Ms. Baird as a nominee, especially because of her status as the first female attorney general-designate. The Judiciary Committee now has female members for the first time in its history: Democrats Diane Feinstein of California and Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois.

The Baird nomination is now immersed in a persistent controversy over the hiring by her and her husband of illegal aliens as household employees, the failure to pay Social Security taxes for them until Ms. Baird was in line for a government appointment, and the assessment of a $2,900 fine by the Immigration and Naturalization Service for the violation of immigration law.

One prominent Republican member of Congress, Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, has urged that her nomination be withdrawn, but the Senate's leaders gave no indication over the weekend that Ms. Baird was facing any significant risk of being rejected. GOP members of the committee appear to be awaiting her explanations before deciding how to proceed, an aide to one of those members said. Until she appears, she gets the "benefit of the doubt," that aide added.

Vernon Jordan, President-elect Bill Clinton's transition chairman, said yesterday that he did not think Republicans were "playing politics" with the nomination. He said in an interview on CNN that Republicans had questions that they "are entitled to ask," and added: "They will get good answers." He said he is confident she would be confirmed by the Senate.

Mr. Clinton's aides have been attempting to show that the illegal aliens controversy is now closed -- a point that Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., echoed ** over the weekend.

With most of the Senate apparently eager to cooperate with Mr. Clinton in clearing a Cabinet swiftly, the only negative prospect in sight for Ms. Baird is that she may be one of the last top-level members of the new administration to win Senate approval.

Through the Clinton transition team, Ms. Baird has already indicated that she will admit to senators that she and her husband had been wrong in their handling of the legal requirements surrounding the illegal aliens they had hired as a baby sitter and a driver.

Ms. Baird "deeply regrets the mistakes she has made in this matter," the Clinton office said Saturday.

That statement echoed Mr. Clinton's "complete confidence in Zoe Baird" for the top job at Justice.

If the Judiciary Committee hearing is not wholly taken up with questions about the aliens controversy, Democratic senators may seek some indication of how Ms. Baird will try to repair the tarnished reputation of the Justice Department, and how she would keep that department from making politically-inspired uses of the law. The Democrats also are likely to lecture her about enforcing civil rights laws and helping to assure abortion rights for women.

During the Bush and Reagan administrations over the past 12 years, the Justice Department has been in the forefront of the government's efforts to promote a conservative social agenda in U.S. domestic policy and has been a leader of anti-abortion maneuvers.

Republican senators may press Ms. Baird on whether she endorses Mr. Clinton's campaign statement that support for abortion rights will be a condition for any judicial appointee selected by the new administration. GOP lawmakers also may demand to know her views on the special prosecutor law, which has become seriously unpopular within GOP ranks in the wake of the six-year, still-not-ended probe of the Iran-contra scandal.

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