`Benefit Of The Doubt' -- Key Senators Give Thomas Support For Confirmation

WASHINGTON - For Illinois Democrat Alan Dixon, the issue went to the heart of America's legal principles: He would vote to confirm Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, he said today, because "Judge Thomas is entitled to the presumption of innocence."

For Alabama Democrat Richard Shelby, "ultimately you have to make a decision and I made a decision this morning to support Judge Thomas, to give him the benefit of the doubt."

Nebraska Democrat James Exon drew a football analogy: "I intend to vote for confirmation but without enthusiasm. It's decision-making time, and we can't punt."

After a weekend of acrimonious hearings, charges of sexual harassment and countercharges of perjury, key swing Democrats lined up in support of Thomas in advance of the vote late today to confirm or deny President Bush's nominee to a seat on the Supreme Court.

With their support, and based on interviews with other senators, NBC News said this afternoon Republican had enough votes to approve Thomas' nomination.

Dixon, speaking in today's full Senate debate over Thomas' nomination, said the inconclusive weekend hearings into the allegations by law professor Anita Hill left him no other choice but to support Thomas.

Hill has accused Thomas of sexually harassing her during their work together at two federal agencies in the early 1980s. Her charges delayed last week's vote on Thomas' nomination when they were leaked to the press just days before the vote.

Before today's debate, Bush led the White House lobbying effort for his nominee, saying that public support for Thomas was "holding strong."

In particular, Bush was counting on support from Southern Democrats such as Shelby and John Breaux of Louisiana, who already had pledged support to Thomas.

One Southern Democrat, Sen. J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, reaffirmed his support for Thomas, saying three days of hearings into the allegations by Hill had not changed his mind.

Georgia Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn reserved the right to change his mind but said last night, "At this stage I continue to support Judge Thomas."

Another Southerner, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, rose to the floor today to declare that Hill's statements had changed his mind. He had been prepared to back Thomas, he said, but would now oppose him because "I believe Anita Hill."

However, most Republican vote counters had not expected Byrd's support.

The weekend hearings were over but far from forgotten as the debate waged on, not only over allegations against Thomas but also over the Senate's handling of the initial reports of sexual harassment.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., defended his committee's conduct and, as expected, declared himself against Thomas. ". . . The views which Clarence Thomas has . . . are significantly different than ones that have been espoused by the court for the past 40 years," he said.

Bush was contacting a half-dozen or so wavering senators today, the White House said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a vocal Thomas supporter, pointed to Bush's efforts as a likely key for Thomas. "The White House has a lot of clout," he said.

"If we make a mistake today the Supreme Court will be living with it and the nation will be living with it for the next 30 to 40 years," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "That is too high a price to pay. . . . To give the benefit of the doubt to Judge Thomas is to say that Judge Thomas is more important than the Supreme Court."

Kennedy and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., tangled on the Senate floor as Kennedy denounced Republican treatment of Hill in the hearings, including Specter's allegation that she had committed perjury.

"The way Professor Hill was treated was shameful," Kennedy said, jabbing his finger at Specter.

Specter responded: "We do not need characterizations like `shame' in this chamber from the senator from Massachusetts. The women of America should not listen to the senator from Massachusetts, who is trying to arouse passions on the generalized subjects of sexual harassment."

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., one of only two women in the Senate, said a vote against Thomas could help persuade American women to speak up when they are harassed. "We have an opportunity to send a message everywhere," she said.

Hill's "story in my opinion was not credible," Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a Thomas supporter on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told CBS today.

"I think Anita Hill was telling the truth," countered Leahy, who opposes Thomas.

Hatch criticized Democrats for their conduct during the weekend hearings, and Leahy answered with an indictment of Republican tactics.

"It wasn't a search for the truth," Leahy said. "It was a search to try to smear Anita Hill."

The White House strategy was to hold Southern senators with large black constituencies. In remarks clearly aimed at them, President Bush said yesterday: "It's important to note that among Afro-Americans, black Americans, that the support is very, very strong. That is significant and I think highly important."

Senate Republicans and the White House tried to argue that Hill's testimony produced insufficient evidence and that Thomas deserved the benefit of any doubts.

Thomas, meanwhile, was "feeling good," said his chief Senate backer, Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo.

An ABC News poll released yesterday said more Americans were inclined to believe Thomas than Hill and 56 percent now favored his nomination - the first such majority support since Hill made her allegations public.

Hill's charges were first made to Senate staff members when they called her in early September seeking to confirm rumors she had been harassed by Thomas at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1981-83.

The Judiciary Committee requested an FBI investigation, which was carried out Sept. 25-27. The committee initially kept the allegations secret, but was forced to carry out public hearings after the information was leaked to the press.

The Judiciary Committee had voted to send the nomination to the floor without recommendation after a motion of approval of Judge Thomas lost on a 7-7 vote.

-- Information from Reuters is included in this report.