WASHINGTON — As President Reagan prepared to name federal appellate Judge Anthony M. Kennedy of California to be his new Supreme Court nominee, conservatives and moderate Republicans blamed each other Tuesday for the failure of Reagan's two previous choices to win confirmation to the vacant high court seat.
The intraparty squabbling came to light when Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.), a moderate, went to the Senate floor to defend White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. against severe criticism from conservatives, who have blamed the presidential aide for the defeat of federal Judge Robert H. Bork and the withdrawal of Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg.
"These attacks only confirm the fact that you can get mugged more easily on the back stairs of the White House than you can on the streets of any urban ghetto," Cohen said.
Cohen was answering criticism by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a conservative, who earlier had characterized White House pragmatists such as Baker as "gutless wonders" who failed to provide the necessary support for either the Bork or Ginsburg nominations.
The Cohen-Hatch exchange demonstrated just how deeply the Republican Party has been torn by these back-to-back reversals for the President on Capitol Hill.
"I think it's been a very divisive experience," Hatch said.
The Bork nomination was defeated last month in the Senate, 58 to 42, by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans who viewed him as too extreme; Ginsburg, who was chosen after the Bork defeat, withdrew his name from nomination Saturday when it was learned that he had smoked marijuana as recently as 1979.
Sources said that Kennedy, who spent Tuesday closeted with Justice Department officials in a detailed discussion of his background, could be nominated as early as today. A White House source added that Kennedy's wife was flying to Washington from Sacramento Tuesday, presumably to be with him for the nomination announcement.
But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said he does not expect hearings on the Kennedy nomination to start until next January. And Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said it would be a mistake for the President to press for earlier hearings.
"I think the White House is going to be very, very hesitant to say: 'Speed it up!' " Leahy said. "The immediate reaction would be: 'What are they trying to hide this time?' "
Kennedy, an acquaintance of the President during Reagan's days as governor of California, is viewed by some conservatives as a more conciliatory choice than Bork or Ginsburg who is being considered primarily because he will receive Democratic votes in the Senate.
Not only do Republicans disagree over who the next nominee should be, but the Bork and Ginsburg setbacks have rekindled the long-running dispute within the party over whether the President should be confrontational or conciliatory with Congress.
"It seems like a basic compromise of principle," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a conservative, of the expected nomination of Kennedy.
Hatch, speaking to reporters Monday, blamed Baker directly for causing the President to be too cooperative with Congress.
"Howard Baker does believe that almost everything can be compromised," he said. "I believe in compromise. (But) I don't think everything can be compromised, nor do I believe in compromising your principles, and there was a principle involved here."
'Who's Running the Place?'
In addition, Hatch criticized unnamed White House aides--presumably including Baker--for failing to support Ginsburg and Bork when they faced opposition in Congress. "You wonder who's running the god-dang place," he added, referring to the White House.
On Tuesday, other conservatives echoed Hatch's criticism. "I won't say that they have reminded me of the Keystone Kops, but they could have acted with more prudence," Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N. C.) said.
Helms, who has criticized Kennedy as a potential nominee, had been scheduled to meet with the California jurist Tuesday, but the meeting was postponed by the White House--apparently out of fear that it would only stir up more controversy about the nomination.
"I'm relieved to see this outburst of prudence," Helms quipped.
Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) also criticized the White House staff for failing to support Reagan's nominees and faulted Reagan for failing to challenge Congress in the final days of his Administration.
'We're Looking Dumb'
"We currently have no strategy, and we're looking dumb," he said.
In Baker's defense, Cohen noted that the former Senate majority leader had agreed to join the White House as chief of staff late last year in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal to stabilize Reagan's sinking presidency.
"He fulfilled his mission," Cohen said. "The ship of state was stabilized . . . . But the tide turns quickly on the Potomac. The focus for the President's recent fall from grace has now shifted to the very man who rescued him from disaster: Howard Baker."