WASHINGTON — After a long day of crumbling support, the nomination of Atty. Gen.-designate Zoe Baird has been withdrawn at her request, the White House announced early today, ending her bid to become the first woman to fill the post.
In a statement, President Clinton, faced with the first setback of his Administration, praised Baird's "decency and integrity" but said that "with sadness, I have accepted her request" to withdraw the nomination.
Baird, in a letter to Clinton, said "the continuing controversy" surrounding her nomination would impede her ability to reinvigorate the Justice Department.
Baird said she was "surprised at the extent of the public reaction" to the controversy surrounding the hiring of two illegal immigrants to help care for her child.
"Your confidence in me to serve as the nation's attorney general is the highest honor I can imagine," she told Clinton. "Thank you again for your confidence and the opportunity you gave me."
The announcement came after a day in which advisers to Clinton recommended privately that Baird withdraw from consideration and 11 senators announced opposition to her confirmation because she hired a Peruvian couple for domestic services, even though she knew that they could not work legally in the United States. She and her husband also failed to pay Social Security taxes on their wages.
In his statement, Clinton blamed the review process before Baird's nomination for failing to completely evaluate the issue. "For that, I take full responsibility," he said.
"You are highly qualified to be attorney general," Clinton wrote in a personal letter to Baird. "I believe you would have been a fine attorney general."
The President also told Baird that he hoped she would "be available for other assignments for your country in my Administration."
The Senate Judiciary Committee had grilled Baird for nearly 9 1/2 hours Thursday about the issue. Six Republican senators publicly declared that they would vote against the Baird nomination and five Democrats demanded that she withdraw.
The 11 senators opposing the nomination included Senate Republican Whip Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), David L. Boren (D-Okla.), Richard C. Shelby (D-Ala.), John B. Breaux (D-La.), J. James Exon (D-Neb.), Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), Larry E. Craig (R-Ida.), Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.).
Although the 40-year-old nominee impressed onlookers with her composure under fire, her prospects fell hour by hour as senators disclosed their opposition in news releases that arrived at the Judiciary Committee hearing room and telephone calls opposed to the nomination clogged the Senate switchboard.
In a closed-door meeting of the Democratic caucus at noon Thursday, senators were sharply divided over the issue. There was "considerable controversy" over her actions, conceded Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), who supports Baird.
Privately, even Baird's two home state senators--Democrats Christopher J. Dodd and Joseph I. Lieberman--had told associates that they believed the nomination had no chance, according to a source close to them.
A spokesman for Lieberman, who is close to Clinton and was one of Baird's chief sponsors, said the senator had not conveyed any recommendation to Clinton.
A key Democrat on the committee, Sen. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, said Baird's confirmation problems were serious. "There are several of us (Democrats) certainly not committed for her, including me," he said Thursday.
Baird had drawn support from some influential Republicans, including Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican. But Clinton was not willing to go ahead with the nomination if a majority of his own party no longer supported it, a senior White House official said.
Although White House vote counters believed that Baird still could have prevailed on the Senate floor, the real battle was in "the court of public opinion," a Clinton adviser said.
"People can understand this," the adviser said. Voters see Baird, a corporate lawyer earning $507,000 a year, as part of "a class of people who think they are above the law."
Baird had repeatedly denied the suggestion that she sees herself that way. Nonetheless, "the average guy gets that," the adviser said. "It's Sununu with the airplanes," he added, comparing Baird's conduct with one of the most embarrassing chapters of the George Bush Administration. John H. Sununu lost his job as Bush's chief of staff when he was accused of unauthorized use of government aircraft.
At the White House, where aides had begun focusing on damage control, Clinton's spokesman prepared the way for dropping the controversial nominee by asserting that the President had not known the details of Baird's conduct when he announced her nomination last month.