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A 'God-Awful Mess' Leads to a Somber Vote

October 16, 1991|RUDY ABRAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In the end, the "world's greatest deliberative body," as the U.S. Senate continually styles itself, took a powder.

The great debate that concluded with the elevation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court Tuesday was not much of a debate at all. Rather, it was a daylong procession of senators trying mightily to extricate themselves from a predicament from which there was no graceful exit--their invocations of telephone logs, the Bible, the Constitution, William Shakespeare and John Milton notwithstanding.

It was, confessed Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) in announcing his support for the confirmation, one "god-awful mess."

And when it was over, like the day the mighty Casey struck out, there was no joy in Mudville, even for the victors. "The joy," said Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), Thomas' close friend and mentor, after the 52-48 vote was tallied, "has turned to pain."

Emphasizing the somberness of the occasion, senators adhered to a generally ignored rule and sat quietly at their desks as the roll was called, rising one by one to cast their votes. Some members were barely audible as they answered yea or nay.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), one of three Democrats who voted against Thomas after previously announcing that they would support him, arrived late for the roll call. Before proceeding to his desk, he stopped to whisper in Danforth's ear. In a low voice, he told him the outcome of his personal deliberations over Thomas and the allegations of sexual harassment lodged against him by Thomas' former aide, Anita Faye Hill.

Only once was the somber atmosphere within the Senate chamber relieved by so much as a chuckle. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Thomas' chief defender in the Senate Judiciary Committee's marathon weekend hearings, intending to characterize Hill as an "alleger" became momentarily tongue-tied and referred to her instead as an "alligator."

Although the arrival of dusk and the solemn roll call brought triumph to the White House, the mood in the Senate was one of palpable relief among members who had faced irreconcilable sworn testimony and office switchboards swamped by calls from angry black voters and equally furious feminists. "I am relieved," said Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.), "to return to a plane of discourse with which we are more familiar and better suited."

But while the senators were clearly exhausted by the allegations that Thomas had sexually harassed Hill years ago at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the last skirmish of the long confirmation fight still fascinated the public.

Throughout the day, spectators were ushered in and out of Senate visitors' galleries. And all across Capitol Hill, office workers continued to debate the extraordinary standoff as the roll call approached.

The only time that the eight hours of discussion on the Senate floor rose to the level of spontaneous debate came in the early afternoon when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass), who had hardly murmured during the stormy committee hearings, charged that his colleagues who suggested that Hill is guilty of perjury should be ashamed.

That infuriated Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a onetime prosecutor who had said that he had found evidence of perjury in Hill's committee testimony. He angrily accused Kennedy of trying to "terrify" American women by suggesting that others who bring charges of sexual harassment will not be taken seriously. Unchastened, Kennedy replied with a finger pointed at Specter: "The way Prof. Hill was treated was shameful, shameful."

Long before that brief volley, the outcome had become evident--two previously undecided members, Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.) and Sen. Alan J. Dixon (D-Ill.), announced at the outset that they would support confirmation. With President Bush providing insurance with eleventh-hour telephone calls to key senators, the White House was expressing confidence that the confirmation was in the bag.

Before noon, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), Senate president pro tempore and former majority leader, publicly conceded that Thomas would be approved, despite the testimony of Hill, who told the Judiciary Committee that she had been a victim of sexual harassment by her boss.

The courtly West Virginian provided the proceedings with one of the day's few genuine surprises by becoming the first senator to announce that he was changing his vote on the basis of the sex-harassment furor.

On Tuesday morning, Byrd had been one of the senators listed as uncommitted, although he was widely considered to be leaning in favor of confirmation. As he took the floor, he acknowledged that until the weekend committee hearings he had fully planned to support confirmation.

He changed his mind, he said, because he believes what Hill said. "I don't believe any living man can look at that woman's face and listen to what she had to say . . . and believe that she invented that story," Byrd said.

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