WASHINGTON — Senate supporters and opponents of Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert H. Bork began the long-awaited debate on his confirmation Wednesday by fulfilling all expectations of acrimony, heatedly exchanging charges about his qualifications and the way his nomination has been handled.
Leading the attack for Bork's advocates, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) took the Senate floor to denounce the "lies" he said had been spread by the judge's critics to deliberately cause "distortions" of his judicial record.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate committee that has recommended Bork's rejection, accused pro-Bork senators of raising "a smoke screen to distract the American people" from Bork's controversial views.
The nominee, he said, is unsuitable for the high court because he fails to recognize a "principle of human dignity--that our rights come not as a gift from government, but as a gift from God."
Bork's wife, Mary Ellen, and oldest son, Robert Jr., watched much of the first day's fusillade from the Senate gallery, leaving briefly when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), one of Bork's sharpest critics, rose to deliver his attack.
Although the speeches vented the anger and frustration on both sides, they "are falling pretty much on deaf ears because senators have made up their minds," Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said early in the debate.
"We have really reached the point where the debate is more pro forma than substantive," said Specter, one of the 54 senators who have announced they will vote against Bork.
Although Bork's defeat appears inevitable, the floor debate promises to be long and harsh. Senate leaders are hoping to schedule a vote on the nomination Friday but concede they may not be able to complete the speeches in time to do so. Many Administration officials fear that the debate may go long enough and raise tempers in the Senate sufficiently to prevent President Reagan from gaining confirmation for another nominee this year.
Many of Wednesday's statements were largely repeats of those delivered during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination, but their tone was even more strident.
Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) praised Bork's "exceptional qualities" for the high court and called him "one of the most eminently qualified individuals to be nominated" in the nation's history.
'Record Is Superb'
Although critics have suggested that Bork would "turn back the clock" on civil rights advances, Thurmond said: "Judge Bork's civil rights record is superb."
Kennedy strongly asserted otherwise. He reminded senators of Bork's 1963 opposition to legislation that ended segregation in public accommodations. "In the 1960s, when we sought to end segregated lunch counters and 'whites only' want ads, Robert Bork stridently opposed legislation to end racial discrimination," Kennedy said.
"President Reagan obviously took Robert Bork's ideology into account in making the nomination, and the Senate has every right to take it into account in acting on the nomination," Kennedy said.
Although Bork, in refusing to withdraw his nomination recently, had asked that the Senate debate focus on core judicial and constitutional issues, much of the opening day's rhetoric concerned the aggressive campaigns mounted by his opponents and supporters.
"In this instance, process is the issue," said Hatch, as he accused Bork's opponents of attempting to "politicize" the way the country chooses judges.
'Create a Monster'
Hatch attacked People for the American Way, Planned Parenthood and other groups that ran advertisements opposing Bork. The groups distorted Bork's record to create suspicions about him and to raise money for themselves, he charged. "It is profitable to create a monster and cast yourself as the only knight."
As Hatch spoke, several of the groups distributed memoranda to the press supporting the charges aired in the advertisements and detailing the funds spent in the campaign. People for the American Way said its advertisements, including a television spot that featured actor Gregory Peck, had cost $650,418. Planned Parenthood said it had spent roughly $200,000 and the National Abortion Rights Action League said it had spent $115,746.
Biden, defending the highly organized effort, said: "I will acknowledge that there has been politicization, but any politicization has been driven by President Reagan's single-minded pursuit of packing the courts with ideological allies."
Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) have tried to work out an agreement to limit the Bork debate, but conservative Bork supporters in the Senate have refused to agree. In the absence of an agreement, Byrd has said he will keep the Senate in session late into the night this week until both sides run out of things to say.