Senate upset on eve of vote over Thomas Harassment charges disturb some senators, but vote is to go ahead


WASHINGTON -- The Senate, on the verge of confirming Judge Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court justice, was thrown into turmoil yesterday by the demand of an erstwhile aide to Judge Thomas that senators first look into her charges that he sexually harassed her.

A number of Democrats who had previously announced support for Judge Thomas said that they wanted to read an FBI report of the aide's allegations before voting.

Anita Hill, an Oklahoma University law professor who was an assistant to Judge Thomas when he was a federal civil rights official in the 1980s, demanded an "official resolution" by the Senate of her charges. She alleged that while he was her supervisor he repeatedly turned conversations to sex, describing to her in explicit terms his sexual interests and scenes from pornographic movies.

Ms. Hill said she would be willing to testify before the Judiciary Committee on her charges. "My integrity has been called into question," she said at a news conference in Norman, Okla.

Ms. Hill's accusations erupted over the weekend as the Senate prepared to wind up a debate on Judge Thomas' confirmation and to vote at 6 p.m. today. A majority of the Senate had appeared to favor seating President Bush's nominee on the Supreme Court.

Some Democratic senators who oppose Judge Thomas' confirmation -- including Maryland's Barbara A. Mikulski -- called yesterday for a delay in the Senate vote.

"I think we owe Judge Thomas, the U.S. Supreme Court and the people of this nation a little more thorough investigation than has taken place up to this point," said Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill.

Two of Judge Thomas' Democratic supporters -- Sen. Sam Nunn Georgia and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut -- called upon the Senate to seek more information on the accusations, but they did not indicate any plans to change their minds and vote against the judge.

However, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., describing the allegations as "troubling in light of their gravity," said he would reconsider his vote.

In all, eight of the 13 Democrats who had previously announced support for Judge Thomas said they wanted to read the FBI report of Ms. Hill's allegations, the Associated Press reported.

On the other hand, Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., a supporter of Judge Thomas, said, "If there was anything to the charge, the committee would have brought it out. I give that [Ms. Hill's charges] zero credence."

And Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he voted for Judge Thomas in committee after reading the FBI report because he put more credibility in the nominee's denial. Ms. Hill should have spoken out earlier, he said, adding, "People who feel sexual harassment or discrimination have to come forward; they can't sit back."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he saw no reason for the vote to be delayed, and Democratic Majority Leader George J. Mitchell said he expected the vote to occur as scheduled.

Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., Judge Thomas' chief sponsor in the Senate, was visibly angered by suggestions that the Senate vote be postponed. "The strategy of [Judge Thomas'] opponents has been to delay the vote, to keep it in play," he said, adding, "There is an aroma about this whole thing."

Meanwhile, the furor over Ms. Hill's allegations continued as she spelled them out at her news conference in a university classroom, with students cheering her on.

The young law professor called for a Senate investigation that would "focus on behavior."

Then she added, "Reliving this experience has been really bad for me. It was bad enough to experience it once, but to relive it has been very bad."

She alleged that Mr. Thomas began to harass her after he hired her as his personal assistant when he was assistant secretary of education for civil rights 1981. It stopped, she said, but after he became chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it began again.

Ms. Hill said in her affidavit to the Judiciary Committee that she and Mr. Thomas dated. She did not allege that he ever touched her in any way during conversations on sex. In response to questions yesterday, she said that there were "several incidents" in which his behavior -- his discussions of sex -- created a "hostile environment," a term in sex-harassment law that represents a violation of the law.

Explaining why she moved to the EEOC with her boss, Ms. Hill said that she feared she would be "jobless" if she didn't go along and that she "wanted to stay in civil rights." In "hindsight," she said, that was "not the right decision."

Asked why she had not come forward with her charges last year, when President Bush nominated Mr. Thomas to be a federal appeals court judge, Ms. Hill said that the Senate Judiciary Committee "never approached me" with questions about the nominee.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater called the charges a "smear" yesterday. President Bush told reporters that Judge Thomas "still has my full confidence."

Then there was the issue of how Ms. Hill's accusations got to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and eventually to the public.

Ms. Hill said at her news conference that she was "approached" by the Judiciary Committee in early September. But Mr. Biden issued a statement saying that the professor "first contacted the . . . committee on Sept. 12." It turned out that a staff aide to an unidentified senator on the committee had contacted Ms. Hill.

Sen. Orrin D. Hatch, R-Utah, suggested yesterday that a committee member, whom he did not name, violated Senate rules by leaking the information about Ms. Hill's charges to the news media.

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