Clinton Takes More Time on Court Choice : Nomination: Delay has some worried that President is backing away from Babbitt. Aides say announcement might be put off until next week.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Clinton delayed the expected announcement of his Supreme Court nominee Thursday, stirring concern among some Senate Democrats that Clinton is backing away from Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt as his choice.

Instead of presiding over an anticipated Rose Garden ceremony, Clinton appeared before television cameras to explain that he needed to extend the 36-day-old search to replace Justice Harry A. Blackmun.

"The most important thing is for the President to appoint someone that the President feels very good about," Clinton said. "I know that this has now become the most pressing story in the capital, but this is really a story that will have implications for years, indeed, perhaps for decades to come."

Clinton, a former law professor, said "one of the benefits and perhaps one of the burdens the American people got when I was elected President is that I believe I know a lot about this issue and I care a lot about it. . . . This is not an issue I can defer to aides."

White House officials had been predicting that the announcement would come Thursday or today. But Administration officials said Thursday that it might be put off until next week or even longer.

One aide denied that there is any leading candidate and suggested that Clinton may not be focusing on the widely reported trio of Babbitt and federal judges Richard S. Arnold of Little Rock and Stephen G. Breyer of Boston.

Some congressional aides speculated that Clinton is trying to assess how seriously to take Republican threats of a nomination fight over Babbitt and to gauge Democrats' enthusiasm for him. A confirmation fight could distract attention from the Administration's health care reform effort.

The White House also may be weighing the potential loss of prestige that could come from perceptions that he had abandoned a candidate in the face of Republican opposition, Senate aides said.

Three Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans--Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming and Hank Brown of Colorado--have voiced concern about a Babbitt nomination and predicted a confirmation fight. By the count of some Democrats, 20 senators could vote against the Interior secretary, largely because of differences over his record and his policies concerning Western lands, which have been perceived as unfavorable to business.

In contrast, others said, Arnold and Breyer would be likely to garner wide bipartisan support because of more centrist images and strong ties to the legal and political community.

Senators from both parties were downplaying the risks for Clinton from a confirmation fight.

Simpson, who has disagreed with Babbitt on Western land-use issues, said Thursday he nonetheless saw no reason why Babbitt wouldn't be confirmed. Sen. Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.), said Republicans would "rough him up, but he's confirmable."

Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) said it would be "unfortunate" if a perception that Republicans would oppose Babbitt is figuring into White House calculations.

The idea that he is too liberal for the court is "a bum rap against Bruce, and I hope that's not influencing the Administration's viewpoint," he said.

Times staff writers David Lauter, Ronald J. Ostrow and Karen Tumulty contributed to this story.

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