In the Senate confirmation battle over Judge Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan faces a major test of his political authority. Rarely have the odds seemed so heavily stacked against the President. The first showdown comes tomorrow, when the Senate Judiciary Committee votes on Judge Bork's nomination to the United States Supreme Court. But the decisive struggle will take place in the Senate chamber, where the nomination faces greater obstacles.
Twenty-six senators have formally come out against Bork, and a number of those pledge to stall the nomination with a filibuster. At least 40 senators have yet to declare themselves. Yet the momentum is clearly with the opposition, and a large number - possibly the majority - of the officially undecided senators are leaning heavily against Bork. ``We're getting steamrolled,'' one Senate Republican staff member says.
Now President Reagan has thrown himself and the prestige of his office into the battle. On Thursday and Friday, he called undecided senators to the White House in an effort to persuade them that Bork fits squarely within the mainstream of jurisprudence. On Saturday, he used his weekly radio address to urge Bork supporters to inundate the Capitol with calls for Bork's confirmation.
This week, additional senators have been invited for private meetings at the White House. ``It's a tough deal, but it's still winnable,'' White House chief of staff Howard Baker Jr. says.
The question for the President is whether such efforts are too little, too late. ``If he can pull this one off, it will make anything the Gipper did at Notre Dame pale by comparison,'' said Sen. James Exon (D) of Nebraska after meeting with Mr. Reagan on Friday.
For a week it has been clear that Bork's nomination was in serious trouble.
His supporters have maintained a relatively low profile. Civil rights groups, meanwhile, have hammered on wavering and undecided senators, arguing that Bork's presence on the court would disrupt a fragile national consensus on social issues.
That message has enjoyed a special resonance among Southern Democrats, increasingly sensitive to the growing clout of blacks and other minorities at the ballot box. Last week, such prominent Southern Democratic senators as Lloyd Bentsen of Texas and J.Bennett Johnston of Louisiana joined a parade of Democrats rising to pledge their opposition to the Bork nomination.
Bork supporters, caught off guard by the virulence of the opposition and the apparent effectiveness of its tactics, have begun to fight back with a media campaign of their own.
Reagan's speech Saturday reflected the new aggressiveness of the pro-Bork campaign when he attacked ``liberal special-interest groups'' fighting the Bork nomination and accused Bork opponents of being ``soft on crime'' - two themes that have played well with conservative Democrats in the past.
But the task facing pro-Bork supporters is formidable. Sen. David Boren of Oklahoma is the only Democrat so far to have sided with Bork supporters.
Meanwhile, two Republican senators, Bob Packwood of Oregon and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, announced that they will oppose Bork.
White House strategists concede that the nomination could be lost if any other Republicans join the opposition. One private White House head count indicates that, of 17 truly undecided senators, at least nine would have to support Bork if he were to be confirmed.
For Reagan, failure could be costly, reenforcing a pervasive sense that his presidency is in rapid decline. Yet the high stakes of this confrontation are, in part, of the President's own making.
In the last election, Reagan campaigned actively against some of the very same Democrats - such as Richard Shelby of Alabama, John Breaux of Louisiana, and Bob Graham of Florida - whose support he is now seeking. At the same time, Reagan urged the public to vote for a Republican Senate candidates, partly so his Supreme Court appointments would be supported. Since voters returned the Senate to Democratic hands anyway, many lawmakers believe they may oppose Bork without fear of dire political consequences.
One result is that the Bork nomination is being considered in an atmosphere charged with partisan tension. For the President's supporters, the Bork appointment would serve as the capstone of the Reagan judicial legacy.
For his opponents, it would provide Reagan with the opportunity to impose through the courts a conservative social agenda that he has been unable to run by Congress. In this environment, says Senator Packwood, ``Socrates wouldn't be easily confirmed.''
Lawmakers have already begun suggesting other candidates, such as Dallas Appeals Court Judge Patrick Higgenbotham or chief of staff Baker. A number of them have suggested that President Reagan withdraw Bork's name if the defeat appeared inevitable. But on NBC-TV's ``Meet the Press'' yesterday Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah said that Reagan was determined to see the Bork nomination through to a floor vote sometime in the next two weeks.
Yet there are signs that Reagan has made it harder on himself by setting up the Bork nomination as a central priority in a fairly modest Presidential agenda. Failure to prevail on the Bork nomination does not mean that the President's influence will evaporate. But it is likely to encourage Reagan opponents to be bolder in their efforts to shape critical emerging legislation relating to trade, arms control, and welfare issues.
``It's a self-inflicted wound,'' says Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine. ``This is another case of inflating something beyond its real political significance as a tactic to gain approval. Then the President suffers a bigger loss when he doesn't prevail.''