WASHINGTON — When the normally mild-mannered Howard H. Baker Jr. heard that someone on his staff had been saying the White House might withdraw the Supreme Court nomination of Robert H. Bork, he hit the roof.
"I don't know who he or she is," the White House chief of staff said, "but if I find out, they're going to have a day of reckoning with me. Whoever is saying these things, shut up!"
The outburst, recounted by a participant in the daily meeting of the senior presidential staff Tuesday, reflects not only the mounting frustration among President Reagan's aides but also the determination that has driven their approach to the Bork issue.
While the White House could reverse itself if Bork offers to bow out, it thus far has ignored even the advice of Republican senators and has steadfastly refused to cut its losses by pulling the nomination.
The Administration has taken this course for at least two reasons: The adamant President views the battle as a personal "shoot-out at the OK Corral," a former senior White House official said, and his aides--afraid of sending signals that Reagan is weakening in his final months in office--see long-term political benefits by maintaining this never-say-die attitude.
"I am not going to withdraw this nomination," the President said at a photo session before meeting with Republican congressional leaders.
Only moments later, however, Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) told Reagan that Senate Republicans were not quarreling with the vote count predicted by Democratic Whip Alan Cranston of California, who said that at least 53 senators would oppose Bork. "I told him whatever he might think of Cranston on the issues, he's a pretty good vote counter," Dole said.
Nevertheless, Reagan showed no signs of backing down throughout the day, even after the Senate Judiciary Committee's 9-5 vote against Bork--leaving aides to search for silver linings in his efforts as they sought to explain why he was pressing ahead with the fight.
'Fight to the Finish'
"The first benefit is to win it. Next, we think there's a benefit to carrying this vote out to make sure we have exhausted every opportunity to let political opposition know that we will not weaken, we will fight to the finish and that we will not let anybody off the hook on either party," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.
Moreover, one White House official said, this show of resolve will help the next nominee "in the event that the Bork nomination doesn't succeed."
Those close to the President see nothing unusual in his refusal to surrender. "Ronald Reagan has shown consistently that when it comes to a person he's made a commitment to, he's not going to walk away from him," said a Republican who has worked for the President in a variety of jobs over the last seven years.
Although White House aides say that Reagan's strategy will result in political benefits in the future, the plan may not pay off for Bork.
Reagan's plan may backfire because his demand that the Senate vote on the nomination forces some Republican allies to place themselves on record in favor of Bork--a politically risky step for some who would rather not publicize their support for the controversial nominee. This group is said to include Sens. Alphonse M. D'Amato of New York, John W. Warner of Virginia and William S. Cohen of Maine.
Such pressure is certain to build resentment among some Republicans, whose support will be crucial to the President in future fights in the Senate, where Democrats hold a 54-46 majority.
Still, one Republican activist said, reflecting the pressure these senators felt at home, "there are certain constituencies that will probably feel upset by a senator who turned against Bork."
In the view of the White House, Bork has become the victim of "a lot of very difficult smear campaigns," Fitzwater said. "The hype and hyperbole" have made the President "genuinely indignant, angry," another official said.
Indeed, this was much in evidence when Reagan made his comments after his meeting with congressional leaders. "There's no backing off. I'm going all out," he declared.
In addition, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) said, "the hope is the Democrats won't be rewarded for the tactics they've used in destroying a reputation" by being able to avoid taking a stand in a recorded vote.
Fitzwater, while denying that he was threatening Bork's opponents with political retribution or offering political pay-backs to supporters, said: "I think it's probably healthy that we know exactly who voted for this nomination. It's just important to keep these things in mind as you go down the road."
White House officials had been in touch with Bork each day, Fitzwater added, "and he certainly is amenable to this strategy" of pressing on toward a vote, regardless of the result.
Now, officials noted, the President has several options:
--He can continue lobbying senators, one on one, meeting with them privately at the White House.