Babbitt likely pick for high court post

May 12, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton cleared his schedule yesterday to go over the three finalists for the Supreme Court vacancy, amid signs he had zeroed in on one of them: Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt.

"It was moving that way when I left," one high-ranking White House official said last night.

The president spent more than two hours discussing the ramifications of a Babbitt appointment, officials said, with half of the political equation being the naming of New Mexico Rep. Bill Richardson as Mr. Babbitt's replacement at the Department of the Interior.

"He was seriously looking at that last night," said a second top White House official.

The others under consideration are federal appellate Judges Richard S. Arnold of Little Rock, Ark., and Stephen G. Breyer of Boston.

Included in last night's brain-storming session over the appointment were first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, chief of staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III, special counsel Lloyd N. Cutler, and aides George Stephanopoulos and David R. Gergen.

White House officials were guarded in discussing the president's leanings, saying his mind was not irrevocably made up.

Key senators reported being sounded out about Mr. Babbitt, and about Mr. Richardson, a Hispanic congressman who is highly regarded at the White House.

The White House has felt some pressure to choose a Hispanic for the high court. A Richardson appointment to the job at Interior would ease that pressure. In addition, Mr. Richardson, a finalist for Interior the first time around, helped the White House round up Hispanic and Democratic votes for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Another sign that Mr. Babbitt, 55, was the likely choice was that Republican Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, an influential Judiciary Committee Republican, mounted a campaign to drum up opposition to the former Arizona governor. Mr. Hatch induced fellow Western GOP Sen. Alan K. Simpson to come out in opposition to Mr. Babbitt before he was even named.

Mr. Hatch implied in conversations with White House officials that some Western Democrats would oppose the secretary.

But both of the Democrats cited by Mr. Hatch, Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada and Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, issued declarations of support.

Although Mr. Reid conceded that he and other Western senators had been miffed over Mr. Babbitt's proposals to tighten grazing, mining and timber harvesting on federal lands out West, he scoffed at Mr. Hatch's predictions of a tough confirmation fight, saying he knew of no Democrat in the Senate who would oppose the nomination.

As they did at Mr. Babbitt's Interior Department confirmation hearing, Arizona's Republican establishment lauded Mr. Babbitt as a man of talent and principle.

"He's one of the most thoughtful, intellectual individuals I've known on the political scene," said Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. "[He's] an ideal member of the Supreme Court."

Mr. Hatch hinted that there would be a bruising confirmation battle, but even Mr. Simpson conceded that Mr. Babbitt's confirmation would sail through.

Another sign of the impending appointment -- White House aides said it could come today -- was the softening of Mr. Babbitt's own position.

He was almost chosen for the vacancy that went last June to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and when this vacancy came open with the announced retirement of Justice Harry A. Blackmun, Mr. Babbitt stated unequivocally that he was not interested.

Asked on April 24 when his name resurfaced as a candidate if he'd reconsider, Mr. Babbitt answered, "No. I've made my position clear to the president. . . . The Interior Department has got a lot of really big issues in mid-passage, and I'm not about to leave a job half-finished."

Yesterday, Mr. Babbitt's answer was different: "I'm ready and willing to do my part to serve this president."

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