The Senate Judiciary Committee, rejecting criticism that Atty. Gen.-designate Edwin Meese III wears ethical blinders, Tuesday approved his nomination, 12 to 6, with two Democrats joining 10 Republicans for confirmation.
Although Meese was the subject of a 5 1/2-month investigation by an independent counsel, the committee's action--taken more than a year after President Reagan named him to the nation's top law enforcement post--represented a substantial victory for the White House.
Meese's foes vowed an all-out fight on the Senate floor, contending that the committee's six "no" votes foreshadow substantial opposition when the final confirmation vote is taken soon after the Senate returns from recess Feb. 18. But, barring new disclosures of information unfavorable to Meese, his approval as Atty. Gen. William French Smith's successor seems virtually certain.
'Man of Honesty'
Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) said the committee's seven days of hearings, the independent counsel's inquiry and a review by the Office of Government Ethics had established that Meese is "a man of honesty, competence and dedication."
But former Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who, as chairman of the citizens' lobby Common Cause has become one of Meese's sharpest critics, charged that the committee had found "that Edwin Meese's record of ethical misconduct is not an impediment to his serving as attorney general."
Instead, he urged the full Senate to set a higher standard: "that every government official has a duty to disqualify himself from acting on the government business of individuals who have helped him financially."
In contrast to the protracted inquiry over Meese, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee swiftly approved Reagan's nominations of Donald P. Hodel as secretary of the Interior and John S. Herrington to succeed Hodel as energy secretary. The nominations were sent to the full Senate on 20-0 votes.
In the Meese case, the support of two Democrats on the panel, Sens. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona and Howell Heflin of Alabama, had a tone of faint praise.
For example, DeConcini said he believes that Cabinet nominees should "have a presumption, or certainly a leaning, that they should be confirmed. . . . Do we ask for something more than a bill of health that says you may have some warts, you may have some skin cancer, but you don't have something that is terminal? . . . That's where I find Mr. Meese at."
Heflin, meanwhile, said Meese's "answers to exhaustive and thorough questioning before the Judiciary Committee go a long way toward erasing charges of unethical conduct." But, in noting that he was giving Meese "the benefit of doubt at this time" by voting "yes," Heflin added he was maintaining "an open mind" on the final vote.
Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) accused Meese's foes of objecting to him "on the basis of philosophy but couching it in other ways." However, of the opponents, only Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) cited philosophical grounds, contending that Meese as a top White House aide has been "closely identified with policies that undermine" basic human rights. "Mr. Meese stands for unequal justice," Kennedy said.
Most other Democratic opponents objected to what they saw as Meese's blending of his private business with his public responsibilities and his failure to satisfactorily convey that he realized such conduct gave the appearance of impropriety.
But Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) tied his opposition to the question of competence. "I think the standard of excellence--not mediocrity--is the standard to be applied here," he said.