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Senate Confirms Meese, 63 to 31 : New Attorney General ‘Not Bitter at All’ at Delay and ‘Very Grateful’

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Times Staff Writer

Edwin Meese III, achieving a lifelong ambition, was confirmed by the Senate on Saturday as attorney general of the United States, but with the largest negative vote since a nominee of President Calvin Coolidge was twice rejected in 1925.

Meese’s confirmation, by a vote of 63 to 31 with Democrats casting all of the opposing votes, came 13 months after President Reagan first nominated his longtime aide and after allegations of misconduct by Meese led to a five-month investigation by an independent counsel, two sets of hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee and an examination by the Office of Government Ethics.

Meeting briefly with reporters on the White House lawn an hour after the Senate action, Meese said he was “not bitter at all” about the drawn-out confirmation process and was “very grateful for the 2-1 vote that I received” from the Senate.

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Reagan Shares Pleasure

With his wife, Ursula, and daughter, Dana, standing beside him, he said he had talked by telephone with Reagan, who “joins me in taking pleasure at the Senate vote.”

Meese said he is “looking ahead to the challenges of the Department of Justice. I’m committed to the fair, compassionate and forward-looking policies the department should have.” He said he will be sworn in Monday.

The vote on confirmation came after the Senate, in an unusual Saturday session, finally broke through four days of filibustering by farm-state Democrats seeking to press the Reagan Administration to provide more emergency credit to debt-ridden farmers.

Debate on Meese, both pro and con, was interspersed throughout the filibustering. Meese’s critics focused on his acceptance of financial help from persons who later landed federal jobs; his acceptance of a promotion to colonel in the Army Reserve, which an Army investigation found broke military rules, and his alleged insensitivity to issues of civil rights and liberties.

His foes also contended that, although independent counsel Jacob A. Stein had found no basis to bring criminal charges against Meese, the nominee had shown little appreciation of why some would question his actions on ethical grounds.

Supporters Offered Defense

Meese’s supporters defended him as an honest, dedicated public official who had served as President Reagan’s counselor at great expense to himself and his family. They argued that the actual basis for opposing Meese was philosophical and partisan, cloaked in complaints about ethical appearances.

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Although the 31 votes against Meese were all cast by Democrats, such sizable opposition could hinder the new attorney general’s dealings with Congress, Justice Department officials believe. But Meese brushed aside such fears Saturday, saying he expected to be able to work effectively with both houses of Congress.

In March, 1925, the Senate turned down Coolidge’s nomination of Charles B. Warren as attorney general by a vote of 39 to 41. Coolidge resubmitted the nomination and it was again defeated, 39 to 46. The largest number of “no” votes in recent years on a nominee for attorney general was the 21 cast against Griffin B. Bell in 1977. Several of the senators who voted against Bell later said they had been mistaken.

The opposition to Meese contrasts with the smooth sailing experienced by Reagan’s other second-term Cabinet nominees. The Senate approved Secretary of the Treasury James A. Baker III by 95 to 0, Secretary of the Interior Donald P. Hodel and Energy Secretary John S. Herrington, by votes of 93 to 1, and Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, by 93 to 0.

In the debate on Meese, Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), floor manager for the nomination, said: “The mere perception or appearance of impropriety must disappear once the facts conclusively show that there was no violation of the law.” He praised Meese as “an honest and decent man who will serve his country with great distinction in this new post.”

An Anticlimactic Tone

The debate, which lasted for less than an hour Saturday, had an anticlimactic tone, except for an exchange between Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), one of Meese’s strongest supporters, and Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Me.).

Wilson attempted to use the independent counsel’s finding that there was no basis for criminally prosecuting Meese to buttress the argument that he had done nothing “improper or illegal.”

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Mitchell, a former federal judge, said that Wilson, in reading from the independent counsel’s voluminous report, had dropped the qualifying words that limited the clean bill of health to “the bringing of a prosecution against Mr. Meese for the violation of a federal criminal statute.”

“If ever there were a minimal standard, that was it,” Mitchell said. He added that the standard had eroded “to where the principal argument is that a nominee hasn’t committed actions for which he can be indicted.”

Wilson’s comments also prompted Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) to complain: “We have now concluded that if you’re not eligible for indictment, you’re eligible for appointment to the Cabinet of the United States.”

Cranston Votes “No”

Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) was one of the 31 Democrats to oppose Meese.

Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.), considered one of the few Republicans who might break ranks to oppose Meese, said before voting for him that he would scrutinize his conduct as attorney general in light of the assurance Meese had given the Senate to avoid even the appearance of impropriety in the future.

Mathias conceded during debate that Meese had created the appearance of impropriety by supporting his accountant--who had arranged $60,000 in interest-deferred loans for him--for a post on the U.S. Postal Board of Governors. But Mathias commended Meese for admitting during the second set of Senate hearings that he should have handled the situation differently.

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