WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Wednesday evening to confirm William H. Rehnquist as the 16th chief justice of the United States, ending a prolonged and partisan fight over President Reagan's choice to head the Supreme Court.
A solid block of Republicans and about a dozen moderate Democrats combined for a 65-33 vote in favor of Rehnquist, who survived an all-out attack waged by liberal Democrats and civil rights groups.
"They have left no stone unthrown," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Rehnquist's staunchest defender, who complained that the "distortions and misrepresentations" voiced against the 61-year-old justice amounted to a "Rehnquisition."
Shortly after the vote on Rehnquist, the Senate voted, 98 to 0, to confirm U.S. Circuit Judge Antonin Scalia, 50, as a high court justice. He is the first Italian-American on the Supreme Court.
Mathias, Weicker Vote No
Only two of the Senate's 53 Republicans voted against Rehnquist--Charles McC. Mathias Jr. of Maryland and Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut. Sixteen of the Senate's 47 Democrats voted for Rehnquist. California's two senators split, with Republican Pete Wilson voting for Rehnquist and Democrat Alan Cranston voting against him.
Rehnquist told Cable News Network that he was "delighted. It's been a long summer, and I'm awfully glad it's over with. I'm very glad to be confirmed. I look forward to taking over the new responsibility.
"I'm going to be chief justice when I take the oath of office, and I intend to try to do my best to discharge that job. I'm not going to think about all the things that went on in the confirmation debate," he said.
The Senate's action will not immediately change the voting balance on the high court because Scalia, in effect, would replace retiring Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, also a conservative. But the change clearly strengthens the court's right wing because both Rehnquist and Scalia are not only forceful and reliable conservatives but relatively young by Supreme Court standards.
Scalia Named Judge in '82
Scalia, a Harvard Law School graduate who has nine children, took a seat on the federal appeals court in Washington in 1982. He had practiced law in Cleveland in the 1960s and taught at the University of Virginia, Georgetown, the University of Chicago and Stanford before accepting Reagan's appointment to the federal bench.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee said there was no basis for challenging Scalia on questions of veracity or character, which they had raised about Rehnquist.
Rehnquist becomes chief justice under something of a cloud.
During the long confirmation debate, both his backers and critics said that his keen intellect and judicial experience qualified him to head the high court. However, a series of charges--particularly that he is hostile to blacks and women and that he had not been candid at his Senate hearings--had eroded his support. The 33 "no" votes Wednesday were the most votes cast against any confirmed justice since 1888, when Lucius Lamar was confirmed, 32 to 28.
In 1971, Rehnquist survived a fierce attack during confirmation proceedings on his nomination by President Richard M. Nixon as an associate justice. He was eventually confirmed by a 68-26 vote.
With Republicans now in control of the Senate, his supporters thought that this confirmation would be easier. The early predictions were that only 20, or perhaps as many 25, senators would vote against Rehnquist.
Instead, the attacks on his record this time were more fierce and more sustained than in 1971, and they clearly took their toll. In recent days, several senators announced on the floor of the chamber that they had decided to vote against him.
Cites 1970 Memos
Mathias, the second ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday that he would vote against Rehnquist because of recently disclosed memos from 1970 in which Rehnquist, then a top attorney in the Nixon Administration's Department of Justice, proposed a plan to halt school desegregation and denounced the equal rights amendment.
Mathias, who had voted for Rehnquist in the Judiciary Committee, said also that he was bothered because the justice in 1972 had cast the deciding vote to end a suit challenging the Army's spying on civilians. Many legal scholars have contended that Rehnquist helped formulate the Army's plan while at the Justice Department and therefore should have taken no part in the case. Rehnquist in 1972 denied that he had played any direct role in the spying program.
Just hours before the vote, Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.) said he would vote against Rehnquist because of his "lack of credibility and reliability." Exon, a moderate, praised the justice's "high intellect" and his "pro-life position" on the court. Rehnquist has regularly dissented from the court's decisions granting women the right to an abortion.
Exon Explains Switch