WASHINGTON -- With tension and partisan division deepening in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas drew the first direct complaints yesterday that he is trying to protect his chances of confirmation by dodging tough questions.
In his third day of trying to win a majority of the 14 committee votes, Judge Thomas received what seemed to be his roughest personal treatment yet -- at the hands of the committee chairman, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del.
Probing insistently for Judge Thomas' views on "natural law" as a factor in constitutional decision-making and on the right of unmarried people to decide about using birth-control devices, the chairman pounced verbally on the nominee several times.
At one point, he accused the judge of making "the most unartful dodge I've heard." At another, he assailed the logic of one of the judge's answers. At another, he accused the judge of "sophistry."
Several times he cut off Judge Thomas in midsentence, to attempt to get more direct answers.
After exceeding his allotted 30 minutes of questioning, Mr. Biden told Judge Thomas: "I think your friends think you're getting in trouble and they'd like me to stop." The remark touched off taunting exchanges between Mr. Biden and Re
publican Sens. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
Even Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., who is not a committee member yet has been constantly at the nominee's side as his chief Senate sponsor, intruded into the exchange, drawing a barbed remark from Mr. Biden about "Chairman Danforth."
Mr. Biden promptly stopped questioning, and the committee took a break. Senator Danforth was asked if he thought the chairman had gotten Judge Thomas "on the ropes." "Never, never," he said.
Throughout Mr. Biden's questioning, the nominee kept his composure and yielded only a little about his constitutional views. After sparring for several minutes with Mr. Biden over whether the unmarried had a right to sexual privacy, he conceded in a general way that they should have that right.
But when Mr. Biden and others, especially Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., attempted to direct the questioning about rights of privacy to Judge Thomas' views regarding abortion, the judge steadfastly refused to express any position.
He said, more firmly than he had previously, that he believes married couples and families have a constitutional right of privacy that is so fundamental that government could interfere with it only in extreme cases. But he declined to say whether he felt the same way about government regulation of abortion.
No one on either side of the fight over Judge Thomas was suggesting yesterday that his nomination was in detectable difficulty. His supporters did concede privately that there would be votes against him in the committee, and his challengers began saying that a tie vote was "a realistic possibility," as one anti-Thomas lobbyist phrased it.
As Republican senators and White House emissaries to the committee began pressing for an end to questioning of Judge Thomas after today's session, Mr. Biden said he would try to oblige them, although he declined to promise it.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, a leading Thomas supporter on the committee, began chastising Democrats on the panel for continuing to press the nominee to reveal some of his views on abortion -- pressure that, so far, has not brought any revelation of those views.
After telling Judge Thomas during the hearing that he was being questioned as no previous nominee had been on that subject, Mr. Hatch met reporters outside the hearing room and said bluntly that he thought the judge "is being mistreated," partly because "he is black."
Although the committee will continue with other witnesses throughout most if not all of next week, most senators on the panel are expected to make up their minds largely on the basis Judge Thomas' own testimony this week, along with what he has said in the past.
The leanings of the senators may be more clear after today, when he faces two bouts of potentially crucial questioning -- by Democratic Sens. Howell Heflin of Alabama and Patrick J. Leahy Vermont.
Any chance that the committee vote will produce a 7-7 tie and not a majority for confirmation appears to hinge on Senator Heflin, who has been steadfastly neutral but who has begun expressing misgivings about what he has suggested was a "confirmation conversion" -- switches in position by Judge Thomas to gain committee support.
Depending on the tone of the Alabamian's questions and the content of the judge's answers, Mr. Heflin may have the basis he has sought for making his decision.
Mr. Leahy, who has said several times this week that he will insist on direct answers from the nominee, has told Judge Thomas to return today prepared to testify on past criticisms he has made of the Supreme Court's abortion decision in 1973, Roe vs. Wade.
At this point, the Thomas challengers are counting Mr. Leahy as one of the five most probable votes against the nominee; the others being Democratic Senators Kohl of Wisconsin, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio and Paul Simon of Illinois.
Chairman Biden, who is considered to be still neutral, appeared yesterday to be leaning against the nominee. If Mr. Heflin were to start leaning that way, Mr. Biden could be expected to do so, rather than help make an eight-vote majority for the nominee. Even if the committee were to cast a 7-7 vote, the nomination would move to the full Senate for a final ballot. Such a tie in committee, however, would embolden the Thomas challengers.
Meanwhile yesterday, the Congressional Black Caucus Fund, the research and philanthropic arm of the 26-member group of black representatives, held a "briefing and lobbying" session on the nomination for participants in the fund's "legislative weekend" program -- but only about 200 people showed up out of thousands who are in town for the program. And only a few of the session attendees attempted to visit their senators' offices to lobby against confirmation of Judge Thomas.