WASHINGTON — Pursuing a new strategy of conciliation in his attempt to win confirmation of his latest candidate for the Supreme Court, President Reagan on Thursday personally touted Anthony M. Kennedy to key senators. The judge himself made a series of Senate courtesy calls, and received a warm reception.
The new tack is in sharp contrast to the often harsh rhetoric that surrounded the nominations of Reagan's two unsuccessful candidates--Robert H. Bork and Douglas H. Ginsburg. This time "we'll approach this in a cooperative and constructive way and see how that works," White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. told reporters as he escorted Kennedy around Senate offices.
Besides boosting the Sacramento federal judge's chances, Baker's approach also gives Reagan the opportunity to repair badly frayed relations with the Democrats who control the Senate. And for some Democrats, the new mood may allow them to vote with Reagan, pleasing their more conservative constituents.
'Weary of Acrimony'
Democrats, said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (D-Ala.), are "looking for a judge we can vote for," and "assuming there are no ticking bombs in the closet."
The Senate "is weary of acrimony," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). " . . . There's just too much blood on the floor." By choosing the relatively moderate Kennedy, he said, Reagan has made "a shift to the center" and defused much of the hard skepticism that immediately greeted the more ideologically zealous Bork and Ginsburg.
Across the political spectrum, the 51-year-old Kennedy received praise Thursday. Kennedy "sounds good, I like his last name," quipped liberal Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who helped lead the Senate opposition against Bork.
Conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who met with the candidate for half an hour, pronounced him "a very impressive gentleman. . . . I think he'll make a very fine member of the Supreme Court." Two weeks ago, Helms had led a successful conservative effort to persuade Reagan to nominate Ginsburg rather than Kennedy.
And Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who heads the Senate committee that will hold Kennedy's confirmation hearings, said he believes Kennedy's prospects for approval seem "good, based on what we've read and heard so far."
For his part, Kennedy said as he began his courtesy calls: "It's been wonderful. I've had a great reception in Washington." Kennedy was to fly home to Sacramento Thursday night but said he will return next week to resume his visits with senators.
Administration officials clearly believe this combination of the right approach and the right nominee will bring the expeditious Senate approval they need. "The President indicated that we've all learned a lesson in the past few months, and clearly he's interested in having his nominee confirmed by the Senate," said Terry Eastland, chief spokesman for Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III.
Long on Symbolism
The 15-minute meeting between Reagan and the senators, although apparently short on substance, was long on symbolism, marking the first time Reagan had met personally with Judiciary Committee Chairman Biden in the 4 1/2 months since Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. retired from the high court.
The main topic of the meeting was when to begin proceedings, but a decision on that will not come until next week. Biden and other Democrats have said they do not think the Judiciary Committee can start hearings before the Senate adjourns for the year. Republicans, however, are pushing to at least get work started before the adjournment, which likely will come a few days before Christmas.
If the hearings do not start before January and unforeseen problems then delay a final confirmation vote, the nomination "could get enmeshed in presidential politics and the next nominee would be left to the next President," warned Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), one of the key centrist members of the Judiciary Committee.
While the choice now looks non-controversial, Specter said, "It's like pilots say, 'It's always better to take off from the end of the runway,' you may not need all that time, but you might."