Senate's vote on Rehnquist an anticlimax. Coming up: impeachment trial of US District Judge Claiborne

No one doubts that William Rehnquist will be confirmed by the Senate as the next chief justice of the United States. But a casual visitor to the Senate chamber during the past few days might have thought that Justice Rehnquist's nomination was in trouble.

Three days of debate on the Rehnquist nomination have been punctuated by vociferous opposition from a determined group of Democratic senators. They had spent weeks turning out a stream of documents and memorandums they hoped would brand Rehnquist as conservative extremist and undermine his nomination. Last week, for example, they seized on a memo written by Rehnquist when he was a Justice Department official asserting that the proposed Equal Rights Amendment would undermine the traditional family.

Despite their efforts, it was apparent that few of their Senate colleagues were paying much attention. Nor was there much sign of public concern.

A vote to confirm Rehnquist, along with Judge Antonin Scalia to be the new associate justice on the high court, is expected today. But in past days, several Democratic senators have taken to the floor to warn that Rehnquist's confirmation would ultimately divide the country and undermine progress in civil rights made over the past two decades.

Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey echoed the sentiments of a few others when he rose to say that the odds would be ``dangerously higher'' for a ``second coming of Jim Crow'' if Rehnquist were confirmed as the nation's 16th chief justice. ``He does not have the commitment to individual rights and liberties which a chief justice should have,'' Senator Bradley said. ``His appointment will be viewed as a rejection of those in our society who most need his support.''

Yet supporters and opponents of the nomination say Rehnquist's confirmation was never in serious doubt. His legal credentials, including 14 years as an associate justice on the high court, appeared to be beyond reproach. Judiciary Committee chairman Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina called Rehnquist ``overwhelmingly qualified'' for the post.

At the same time, many lawmakers were uneasy about opposing what they regarded as a highly qualified, conservative nominee on ideological grounds alone. A number of them groped for the proper weight to give ideology when considering the qualifications of a judicial nominee.

``The case boils down to one simple fact,'' said Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, ``those who would torpedo these nominations are liberal, and the President's nominees are conservative.''

As a result, a few of the senators opposed to Rehnquist's nomination openly admitted that their efforts were largely symbolic. Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois said that in the face of the Rehnquist confirmation's apparent inevitability, all he could do was ``encourage'' Rehnquist ``to take the weekend off, by himself, and go out to a beach, and walk along the beach and reflect on the role of being a symbol of justice for all our people.''

Little was said about the equally conservative Judge Scalia, and no serious opposition has surfaced to his nomination.

Even the Senate chamber reflected the inevitability of the proceedings taking place. Little drama was in evidence, particularly since the Senate Judiciary Committee had held four days of hearings on the Rehnquist nomination in the summer.

Many of the senators said that the vote on the Rehnquist nomination would be the most important of the 99th Congress; some said it would be the most important vote they would ever cast. Yet the floor was often deserted during the debate. And the press and visitor galleries were sparsely occupied.

Meanwhile, in another part of the Capitol yesterday, a special Senate committee began collecting evidence and taking testimony for the impeachment trial of Nevada federal Judge Harry E. Claiborne. The full Senate is scheduled to begin the trial Sept. 29.

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