WASHINGTON — Robert H. Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court was dealt an almost certainly fatal blow today as opposition spread to include a majority of the Senate. President Reagan said he would "support him all the way" but left room for Bork to withdraw.
"He has a decision to make," Reagan said of Bork. "I have made mine. I will support him all the way."
With the nomination headed for certain defeat on the Senate floor, Bork went to the Justice Department to confer with Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III. There were indications that Meese or Bork might go to the White House later in the day to talk with Reagan, but presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater ruled that out.
"No one's coming over today," Fitzwater told reporters in mid-afternoon. "Our strategy is to continue to make our case and change minds."
He said that Meese had reported to the White House that there was no change in the status of Bork's nomination.
An irritated Reagan, asked by reporters if he was giving up the fight for Bork's confirmation, said, "It's virtually impossible to give up in the face of a lynch mob."
Bork's meeting with Meese came as new declarations of opposition brought to 53 the number of senators who have said they would vote against Bork if the White House pursued a formal showdown. That total, based on public announcements, made Senate rejection all but certain unless several senators changed their minds.
Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), the 51st senator to come out against Bork, made his announcement in a Senate floor speech, and was quickly followed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii).
At the White House, Reagan was asked if he would be meeting later in the day with Bork. He said, "That's possible. I don't know."
Reagan has said repeatedly that he would not withdraw Bork's nomination. "Over my dead body," he said at one point--but aides' comments suggested that stance might be softening today.
Fitzwater said that if Bork asked for his name to be withdrawn, Reagan "would urge him to fight on." But Fitzwater also said of Bork, "Obviously, his decision can be whatever he wants it to be."
'Let Him Decide'
And at the Capitol, Tom Korologos, a lobbyist brought in by the White House to help Bork, said of the nominee, "We're going to let him decide."
As for the opposition arrayed against Bork, the lobbyist said, "We're not naive; there's no mystery on how the vote count is going to go. The handwriting is on the wall."
Mitchell's announcement of opposition, following similar speeches today by Sens. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) and Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), brought the number of announced opponents to a majority of the 100-member Senate.
Thirty-six senators have declared support for Bork, including Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) in a floor speech today, and 11 have taken no public stance.
Nevertheless, Fitzwater said, "The nomination is not dead until the vote is taken."
However, because of Bork's plunging chances, the Senate Judiciary Committee already was combing the backgrounds of possible replacement candidates.
Fitzwater confirmed that the Justice Department maintains lists of possible candidates for judicial openings, including the Supreme Court, but said that no list of replacements for Bork had been sent to the White House.
At the Judiciary Committee, Democratic spokesman Peter Smith said, "The committee staff is beginning to gather information about various individuals who are being mentioned as possible alternative nominees."
Smith said Democratic and Republican senators "would appreciate a serious effort at consultation" from the Administration before it chooses another nominee.