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An Understated Start to Hearings

Times Staff Writers

The ornate Russell Caucus Room has been the site of many of the Senate’s more memorable moments -- including investigations into scandals such as Watergate and Teapot Dome as well as the free-for-all interrogations of Supreme Court nominees Robert H. Bork and Clarence Thomas.

Based on the first day, the confirmation hearings for chief justice nominee John G. Roberts Jr. do not appear destined for that list.

Underneath the chamber’s carved ceiling of gilt, red and blue, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) presided over opening statements Monday that proceeded with near-military discipline.

“I’m down to 10 seconds,” Specter said, referring to the 10-minute time limit he set for each senator. “I intend to stop precisely on time.... That’s it.”

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Indeed, the day’s events -- speeches by the committee’s 18 senators, introductions of Roberts by three other senators and remarks by the nominee -- wrapped up in less than four hours. Every 30 to 40 minutes, members of the public who had received tickets with a precise time to arrive filed quietly in and out of the chamber.

Even outside in the street, the scene was tightly controlled. The few dozen protesters milling about complained that the ticket policy was limiting the ability of interest groups to fully view the proceedings. A demonstration by women’s groups was moved to a rear entrance of the building after police objected, said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and the former director of the National Organization for Women.

“This is the worst manipulation of public access to a hearing I have ever seen,” she said.

In a previous era, she probably would have been invited to testify. But these days, with Democrats in the minority in Washington and facing a candidate some have called a “shoo-in,” Smeal had to wait in line for tickets like everyone else.

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The anti-Roberts protests seemed to have a sense of futility about them. Mixed with demands that Roberts be voted down, liberal demonstrators chanted, “What do we want? Documents. When do we want them? Now.”

The crowd was referring to memos and other papers written by Roberts when he served as deputy solicitor general during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. The current administration has refused to release those documents.

Members of both parties said that the first day’s restraint might not hold for the rest of the week.

Agreeing with that assessment was Ralph Neas, president of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way and a veteran of past confirmation fights.

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“This was a typical first day,” Neas said outside the hearing room. “But I do think this will be civil, dignified, robust and spirited once we get into questioning.”

From the conservative side, Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society speculated that Democrats might have been scalded by early missteps in the battle over Roberts, particularly a television ad by NARAL Pro-Choice America that suggested he supported abortion clinic bombers. NARAL pulled the ad after some Republicans and Democrats complained that it distorted Roberts’ position.

“They were more restrained today than they otherwise could have been because the left wing used up some chits,” Leo said.

Neas and Leo predicted a party-line vote by the committee on Roberts and a close-to-party-line vote in the full Senate, which has 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and one independent, who usually votes Democratic.

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“It won’t be a cakewalk,” Leo said.

The hearing did offer a few moments of drama. Freshman Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) choked up while pleading for an end to political partisanship.

“When I ponder our country and its greatness, its weaknesses, its potential, my heart aches for less divisiveness, less polarization, less finger-pointing, less bitterness, less mindless partisanship which, at times, sounds almost hateful to the ear of Americans,” Coburn said.

And it offered wry amusement to some senators as they quoted one another from previous nomination hearings when their parties were in opposite political positions. Republicans, as a minority party in the Senate, demanded that Democratic nominees should answer all questions -- including ones on specific cases and issues -- while Democrats insisted they should not.

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“When President Clinton’s nominee, Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg was up, she was defended on that side [for skirting some questions], and people wanted to ask for more questions on this side,” Specter said after the hearing. “Now the shoe is on the other foot, people run differently, and that’s not surprising.”

“If you’re looking for consistency,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said, “you’ve come to the wrong place.”


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