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Under Fire, Baird Withdraws Bid for Attorney General : Cabinet: Decision to pull back nomination comes after a day of eroding support from the public, White House and Senate. Clinton praises her ‘integrity.’

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

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 Gen.-designate Zoe Baird has been withdrawn at her request, the White House announced early today, ending her bid to become the first woman to fill the post.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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

Baird told transition officials about her actions, spokesman George Stephanopoulos said, but did not discuss them directly with Clinton. And although transition officials did tell Clinton about the problem, “I do not know what level of detail he knew about the situation,” Stephanopoulos said.

Asked if Clinton continued to support Baird, Stephanopoulos said then that “President Clinton continues to believe she’ll make a good attorney general.” But he unmistakably qualified his support by saying that Baird was Clinton’s nominee “right now.”

And asked if Clinton would have appointed Baird if he knew at the time what he knows now about her conduct, Stephanopoulos repeatedly demurred saying: “I can’t answer that.”

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White House officials had grown increasingly concerned about how much the Baird controversy could damage Clinton’s effort to portray himself as a champion of ethical behavior, and they worried about how many political chits Clinton would have to use up in an effort to salvage the nomination.

Already, they said, Clinton has suffered several blows because of the nomination--criticism from liberals because of Baird’s advocacy of corporate interests, worries from some supporters about her lack of criminal-law experience and her youth and now the controversy over her personal conduct.

Despite the pressures, however, the nominee remained calm in her second long day of questioning before the Judiciary Committee. “I think that my overall record gives me the potential to be a great attorney general,” she said. “The power of my overall record and the potential I have to serve this country . . . should override the particulars” of her violation of immigration law, she declared.

She even smiled when Simpson, a co-author of the immigration law that she violated, said he reluctantly would be voting against her nomination because of her misdeed.

“I appreciate your candor,” she told Simpson, expressing a hope that Simpson, like the 23 senators who voted against confirmation of Griffin B. Bell as attorney general in 1977, would say at the end of her term that she had done a great job.

The only time Baird’s voice seemed to quiver was when she described the “tensions” she encountered while trying to balance her roles as the mother of an 8-month-old son and as general counsel of Aetna Casualty and Life Insurance Co.

On another issue that could have proved to be a problem, Baird confirmed that her husband, Yale Law School professor Paul Gewirtz, had attended a meeting of their neighborhood association, which subsequently was sued by the Justice Department for allegedly violating the Fair Housing Law.

The association allegedly sought to block a woman with 10 foster and adopted children, most of them handicapped, from moving into the neighborhood.

“I learned in the last couple of days that he attended a neighborhood association meeting,” Baird testified, adding that Gewirtz attended to explain the civil rights laws to the members and “not as a participant to exclude anyone.” She praised Gewirtz as a leading constitutional scholar and civil rights advocate. But Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, cited the case as he called on Baird to withdraw her name voluntarily.

Baird continued to receive support from some influential senators, including Hatch, who said that she is the victim of a telephone “smear campaign” that should not be allowed to derail her confirmation.

But her conduct had drawn widespread criticism, with radio talk-show hosts across the country keeping up a steady drumbeat of criticism and the Senate switchboard receiving a tidal wave of telephone calls from angry constituents.

The office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), for example, said late Thursday it had received 2,872 calls against the nominee and 208 in favor. DeConcini said his offices had received 305 negative calls and only four in support of Baird.

Even those senators who publicly still supported Baird acknowledged that she faced a major obstacle. “I think she’s a very qualified individual, but what she did was more than jaywalking,” Dodd told a reporter.

Times staff writer William J. Eaton contributed to this story.


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