President Reagan has chosen former Pennsylvania Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh, a one-time federal prosecutor from the moderate wing of the Republican Party, to replace Edwin Meese III as attorney general, senior Administration officials said Monday.
Thornburgh is expected to confer with Reagan today about the job, said the officials, who added that the decision to nominate the Pennsylvanian had been all-but-officially made.
If confirmed quickly by the Senate, as expected, Thornburgh would have barely six months to serve as the nation's top law enforcement officer, unless Vice President George Bush wins the presidency in November and decides to keep him in the post.
Thornburgh, who is director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, was on vacation at Cape Cod, Mass., and was unavailable for comment, his office said. White House officials said Thornburgh had indicated he would accept the post.
Meese announced his resignation a week ago, declaring that he had been "completely vindicated" by the as-yet-unreleased report by independent counsel James C. McKay on his investigation into allegations about Meese's affairs.
The White House has been moving quickly to find a successor to finally quell the controversy that has surrounded Meese's legal troubles.
Thornburgh, who will turn 56 on Saturday, has a reputation as an aggressive prosecutor who served as the assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division in the Gerald R. Ford Administration. His nomination can be expected to move smoothly through the Senate confirmation process, Senate and White House officials said, avoiding the embarrassing confirmation fight triggered by several previous Reagan appointees, such as Judge Robert H. Bork, who was rejected for a Supreme Court seat last year.
Avoiding controversy was a top priority in this selection, White House officials said.
They said they hope that the Senate Judiciary Committee staff can begin its initial review of the nominee during the legislative recess for the Democratic National Convention next week.
"I think he would be confirmed very quickly" and would be "an excellent attorney general," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a committee member. He said White House counsel A. B. Culvahouse called him Monday morning to clear Thornburgh's name with him.
Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) called Thornburgh "an excellent choice--an outstanding administrator, a tough prosecutor, and his integrity is unquestioned."
A spokesman for Heinz said the senator was told that the White House would announce Thornburgh's nomination on Wednesday.
The spokesman, Richard Breyers, said Thornburgh had a strong civil rights record and won the support of a high percentage of black voters during his gubernatorial campaigns. He was elected governor of Pennsylvania in 1978 and reelected in 1982.
Thornburgh's name came up early in the search for a successor to Meese, the most controversial attorney general since John N. Mitchell ran the Justice Department at the start of the Richard M. Nixon Administration.
Senior aides to Bush had advocated finding a nominee who could stay through a Bush Administration as well.
"Thornburgh would be wonderful," said one senior Bush aide.
Thornburgh served as U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh from 1969 to 1975. He directed investigations that led to the indictments of nearly 50 public officials on misconduct charges. He is a graduate of Yale University, as is Meese, and received his law degree from the University of Pittsburgh.
Thornburgh does not offer the Reagan Administration the strong conservative ideology that his predecessor did, but White House officials were impressed by the fact that he had previous Justice Department experience under a Republican Administration.
Supports Death Penalty
"He's as clean as a whistle. He stuck with the President in 1982, in terms of his economic program," one official said, adding that Thornburgh also supports the death penalty. Others said that preliminary checks with some conservative GOP figures indicated that there would be little opposition from that wing.
For the Reagan White House, Thornburgh offers a way "to recoup some of their losses, some of the damage done by Meese's problems," said one Justice Department official. "The question to ask is how close is he to the Bush people, because that's the only reason someone of his stature would take the job for such a short period."
Officials close to the vice president declined to discuss the expected nomination, but indicated that Bush had been involved in the initial screening discussions with Reagan.
Rash of Resignations
The announcement of Meese's resignation last week followed a year in which he was besieged by allegations about his activities, including that he may have been aware of a proposed payoff to an Israeli political party in a $1-billion pipeline project and that he helped scandal-plagued Wedtech Corp. get an Army engine contract. During this time, the department has suffered a rash of resignations by top officials.
Referring to such problems, a senior White House official said that Reagan wanted "basically to have somebody in there who gives a sense of stability so the department can function."
Officials said that in many regards, the new attorney general would serve primarily as a caretaker for the department during the final months of Reagan's term.
However, they said Thornburgh could be instrumental in several important tasks, such as heading the inter-agency National Drug Policy Board during a period when the war on drugs is a high-profile campaign.
"For that job, you need somebody with sufficient authority and heft to make the process work. You're dependent on a chairman of the board getting the sometimes-fractious members to sing with the same music," one official said.
Another department official said: "Somebody who is not seen as a highly partisan enemy might be able to get more judges (awaiting confirmation) out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where they're being held up. Thornburgh is not seen as extreme."
Staff writers William J. Eaton, David Lauter and Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story.