Senate panel set to question Reno no threats to nomination are seen

March 08, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's weeks-long, sometimes stumbling effort to find an attorney general moves into a crucial public phase this week as the Senate Judiciary Committee questions his nominee, Janet Reno.

Senators on the committee have spent the last several days poring over a secret FBI report on the 54-year-old Miami prosecutor, "making sure they are not blindsided," as one lobbyist promoting the nominee put it, before hearings open tomorrow.

Aides to both Democratic and Republican senators on the committee say there is no indication that Ms. Reno will face any significant difficulty in winning Senate approval to lead the Justice Department -- the only Cabinet agency without a chief named by Mr. Clinton.

If confirmed, she would be the first female attorney general and the first out-and-out liberal leader in years at the helm of a department that had been turned increasingly into an instrument for conservative social policy-making.

As a kind of commentary on her known liberal leanings, Ms. Reno has drawn public challenges from religious fundamentalists in her own state, who say she is soft on obscenity crimes. The National Rifle Association, which believes her to be an aggressive advocate of gun control, has told Congress of its concerns but is taking no formal position for or against the nominee.

Although some conservatives on the Judiciary Committee are described as skeptical about Ms. Reno based on her publicly expressed views on a variety of issues, she is not in any trouble with them at this point, sources on the committee say.

Among supporters of Ms. Reno's nomination, there is optimism that she will not be sidetracked by damaging developments, as happened with Mr. Clinton's first nominee for the post, corporate lawyer Zoe E. Baird, and the federal judge almost selected next, Kimba M. Wood.

Ms. Baird withdrew, and Ms. Wood dropped out of contention after revelations that each had hired an illegal alien as a baby sitter for her child. Ms. Reno, who has never been married and has no children, has said she has no such problem.

Strongly backed by key Democratic senators as well as liberal activists and civil rights and women's rights groups, Ms. Reno has been the top state prosecutor in the crime-ridden Miami area for nearly 15 years and has been credited with a number of legal innovations and reforms. She has repeatedly won re-election by wide margins in a city splintered along racial and ethnic lines.

If her nomination does succeed in the Senate, the Floridian may discover that her biggest problems come when she starts trying to rebuild a Justice Department demoralized by scandal and political maneuvering. The department, with 90,000 employees, also has been leaderless at the very time that the new administration had hoped to start making major shifts in legal policy.

As a nominee to head a department that for most of the past 12 years had urged the Supreme Court to cut back on broad protections given to criminal suspects, Ms. Reno is likely to be pressed by Republican senators this week about views she holds that point in a different direction.

For example, in speech after speech, Ms. Reno has repeated this refrain: "As a prosecutor, I accept almost all of the decisions that the Supreme Court has handed down in terms of defendants' rights, individual rights. I think that those protections are essential against an abusive government."

Ms. Reno also may be asked to spell out her personal opposition to the death penalty -- a view that she notes she has put aside in authorizing capital punishment cases in Miami and that she has vowed to put aside as attorney general. She also is likely to be questioned about her statement, the day Mr. Clinton chose her, that she favors abortion rights.

Some conservative activists are opposed to the nominee. Thomas L. Jipping, head of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, said she has "a very mediocre record in law enforcement but has politically correct views -- and that's why she was chosen." He maintains that Ms. Reno has used her public position to advance a social agenda, suggesting that "Reno has been playing while Dade [County] burns."

Even so, Mr. Jipping said he did not expect Ms. Reno's nomination to face any risk of defeat, or even significant delay, in the Senate.

Although there has been some private muttering among liberal groups about Ms. Reno's record in prosecuting charges of police brutality in the Miami area, that complaint seems unlikely to threaten her nomination.

In public speeches, she has railed against "police officers who abused their badge" by mistreating citizens, and she has spoken with approval about the criminal conviction of police officers for "abusive action in the name of the law."

Ms. Reno also has had critics among minority groups in South Florida, but her associates say she has worked energetically to repair those relations. Publicly, she is an outspoken supporter of the rights of minorities; she recalls cheering when, as a 16-year-old, she heard about the Supreme Court's school desegregation decision in 1954.

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