WASHINGTON — White House officials conceded Monday that, after two weeks of Senate hearings, the Reagan Administration has been unable to win sufficient votes to gain confirmation of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court and said that President Reagan will step up his efforts on behalf of the embattled nominee.
The President is expected to speak out in an attempt to gain public support for Bork and eventually to meet privately with individual senators who are undecided about his appointment.
"This is where the serious arm-twisting begins," said one former White House official who has maintained contact with his former colleagues.
One possible route that has been pressed on the White House by the Justice Department is a televised presidential address to the nation.
White House aides said they do not think such a step is yet necessary, but one Administration official involved in the confirmation campaign remarked: "Absent a dramatic intervention by the President, this is in serious trouble."
Meanwhile, a weary Senate Judiciary Committee decided Monday to cut short the list of witnesses it will hear on the nomination, clearing the way for an end to testimony by midweek and a committee vote next week.
An aide to Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), a member of the panel, said it now appears more likely that the committee will vote to forward the nomination to the full Senate without a recommendation to either confirm or reject.
The 14-member committee is believed to be evenly split between Bork supporters and opponents, with three or four members undecided. The full Senate appears to be similarly divided, according to those on both sides of the confirmation fight.
Committee members said that testimony by both Bork proponents and opponents was curtailed because it became obvious that no minds were being changed on the issue.
Pressure on White House
The uncertainty of the vote in the Senate and new polls indicating a lack of public support for Bork have put increasing pressure on the White House to intervene forcefully to help the man many believe could be a crucial conservative swing vote on the high court for many years to come.
The former White House official said, "I don't think anybody's panicking," but some supporters on Capitol Hill and conservatives outside the Administration have begun to complain that more intense White House lobbying and direct presidential involvement are needed.
Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.), for example, said that the Administration's campaign has been "not hard enough."
A senior White House official defended the role of the President, who spoke out for Bork in a speech last week and who has issued supportive statements through his spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater.
"It may be some people who want to be Monday morning quarterbacks ought to help get him confirmed rather than critiquing" the work of the White House, the official said.
Fitzwater, previewing greater participation by Reagan, said: "I would be surprised if almost every day there isn't some opportunity" for him to make public comments about Bork.
One official said that a presidential speech to the nation may still be employed, although probably not until a Senate vote on Bork is closer. "You ought to use it at the most opportune moment," he said.
Fitzwater said that Reagan may use a speech today to a convention of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington to make a plea for Senate confirmation of the judge.
By White House count, 20 to 25 senators remain undecided on the nomination, Fitzwater said. He said White House strategists are not concerned about recent public opinion polls because "it'll be decided in the Senate."
A poll by Louis Harris Associates that was released Sunday found that Americans opposed Bork's confirmation by a ratio of nearly 2 to 1.
Another senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that it was still "a little early" to begin political horse-trading to win the votes of undecided senators.
But, this senior official said: "We're in a real knock-down, political-trenches kind of fight. It won't be won by showing the legal superiority (of Bork) but in a gut-wrenching political way."
Stakes for President
For the President, the stakes go beyond one seat on the Supreme Court and the impact that Bork could have on judicial decisions in coming years. The outcome will reflect his ability to sway decisions in the Democratic-controlled Congress throughout the final year of his tenure.
The vote will "have an impact on his ability to do anything on (Capitol) Hill," said the former White House official. Reagan's White House would appear "pretty impotent" if it could not win confirmation after all the political capital expended on the effort, he said.