The weeklong postponement suggested new perils for Judge Thomas' nomination: Regardless of the outcome of the Judiciary Committee's inquiry, an array of rights organizations opposed to his candidacy is expected to redouble efforts to persuade wavering senators to oppose him.
The delay reflected the Senate's anguished uncertainty over reports that Judge Thomas sexually harassed a female subordinate nearly a decade ago, while he served as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A new vote was set for next Tuesday afternoon, to give lawmakers time to question both the nominee and his accuser, University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill.
"The issues now publicly raised can be publicly and fairly resolved," said Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine. "I believe the delay now approved is important to the integrity of the Senate, the integrity of the confirmation process, the integrity of the Supreme Court and those who find themselves involved in this confirmation matter."
Ms. Hill said she would be willing to travel to Washington to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., the panel's chairman, said testimony would be taken from Ms. Hill and Judge Thomas in open session, possibly as early as Friday.
"The nominee has the right to be confronted by his accuser," Mr. Biden said. "This is not going to be an easy hearing. This is not going to be easy for members of the committee, nor for Professor Hill, nor for the nominee. But it has to be done."
Last night's action constituted the denouement of a scramble triggered over the weekend when reports of Ms. Hill's allegations were obtained by the press.
"This is grossly unfair for Judge Thomas," said a furious Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo.
Yesterday afternoon, Mr. Danforth had urged a delay at the behest of the nominee, who was said to have wanted the opportunity to try to clear his name. The senator, who has assumed the role of Judge Thomas' patron and sponsor during the tortuous Senate confirmation process, quoted the 43-year-old jurist as saying, "I have to restore what they have taken from me. I have to appear before the appropriate forum and clear my name."
But Republican leaders bowed to a rising demand for delay of the scheduled 6 p.m. vote -- a move that required unanimous agreement -- only after it became clear that Judge Thomas was losing critical support among Democrats, and that his nomination was likely to be rejected if the Senate voted under the terms of an agreement set out last week.
Seven of 13 Democrats who had announced their support for him -- Alan J. Dixon of Illinois, Richard H. Bryan and Harry Reid of Nevada, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, J. James Exon of Nebraska, Wyche Fowler Jr. of Georgia and Richard C. Shelby of Alabama -- all called for a postponement. Two of those senators -- Mr. Bryan and Mr. Exon -- said flatly that they would vote against the nomination if the vote were held on schedule, while several others privately delivered similar messages to Republican leaders.
Nevertheless, most of Judge Thomas' Republican supporters remained solidly allied with the nominee. All but two of the chamber's 43 Republicans -- James M. Jeffords of Vermont and Bob Packwood of Oregon -- have promised to support the nominee. Several of them took to the offensive yesterday to proclaim their faith in his integrity and to challenge Ms. Hill's truthfulness.
To that end, Mr. Danforth released an affidavit signed by Judge Thomas. "I totally and unequivocally deny Anita Hill's allegations of misconduct of any kind toward her, sexual or otherwise," the affidavit read. "At all times during the period she worked with me, our relationship was strictly professional," it continued. "During that time and subsequently, the relationship has been wholly cordial."
"These allegations are untrue," the nominee concluded. "I am terribly saddened and deeply offended by these allegations."
The senator also produced telephone logs Judge Thomas kept while he was EEOC chairman indicating that Ms. Hill telephoned him 11 times over a seven-year period after she left the agency, as well as an affidavit by Carlton Stewart, a former EEOC official who said he overheard Ms. Hill praise Judge Thomas' nomination at August's American Bar Association convention in Atlanta.
"To keep this alive is just to keep the torture going. It's time to get this man off the rack," said Mr. Danforth, who hired Judge Thomas for his first law job and brought him to Washington as a Senate aide.
Armed with this material, the nominee's Republican defenders tried to extinguish the furor triggered by Ms. Hill's accusations. On the Senate floor, for example, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, read from the list of Ms. Hill's telephone calls and asked rhetorically, "Does this sound like a victim speaking to her harasser?"
Among the notations contained in the log were one message that read, "Just called to say hello," and another, "Please call tonight," that included a telephone and room number at a local hotel in which she was staying.
For her part, Ms. Hill declined to answer questions yesterday, teaching class at the University of Oklahoma as usual -- except that she was flanked by three bodyguards and, outside the classroom, surrounded by reporters and cameramen.
She did say, however, that she would cooperate with the Senate. "I intend to go to Washington if it is requested," she said.
Republican damage control was largely ineffective in the face of what, by the end of the day, had become a juggernaut.
Fractures within GOP ranks appeared in the early morning, when Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a moderate who provided crucial support for the nomination in the Judiciary Committee, called for a delay in the voting.
"I don't believe it's going to change my vote," he said on NBC-TV's "Today" program. "But now there's a question, perhaps, of taint of the Supreme Court. The Senate is really the guardian of the Supreme Court, and if it takes another day or two, I think it might be well to put any doubts to rest."
Senator Mitchell himself appeared to urge a delay, noting that "the allegations made by Professor Hill are serious" and that she appeared to be "a credible person." Mr. Biden reversed his earlier opposition to postponement, saying he wanted to give the FBI time to conduct a more thorough investigation before the Judiciary Committee held hearings on the allegation.
Asked how long that would take, Mr. Biden said, "I haven't the slightest notion," adding without elaboration that there were "other allegations" against Judge Thomas to be pursued.
By noon, it was clear that another dynamic had come into play: the Senate's collective fear of being perceived as a men's club whose members are insensitive to women. "What concerns me as much as theallegations themselves is the U.S. Senate appears not to take the charge of sexual harassment seriously," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., one of two women in the Senate and an avowed opponent of the Thomas nomination.