WASHINGTON -- Attorney General-designate Zoe Baird, visibly shaken at times by aggressive questions at her Senate confirmation hearing, portrayed herself yesterday as "repentant" and fully aware that she broke the law by hiring illegal aliens as a baby sitter and a driver.
Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, having received a flood of negative complaints from their constituents about Ms. Baird, turned an expected celebration of her nomination as the first woman ever chosen to head the Justice Department into a day of implied accusation over the illegal aliens.
The senators focused mainly on the immigration-law violation in hiring the aliens when they had no legal papers -- leading to a $2,900 fine. A few committee members, however, also mentioned the failure to pay employment taxes for the aliens until Ms. Baird was in line for a high post in the Clinton administration.
Ms. Baird's advisers in the new Clinton administration, senators and private lobbyists appeared to agree late in the day that her nomination had not been put in serious jeopardy but that getting final Senate approval may take longer and be more labored than had been expected.
Only a few of the day's questions tested her views on major legal and constitutional issues, as senators returned repeatedly to the hiring of a Peruvian couple in 1990 to take care of the infant son of Ms. Baird and her husband, Yale law professor Paul Gewirtz.
In a strange political turnabout, the Democratic nominee seemed to be struggling at times to hold the expected unanimous support of the Democrats on the panel yet gaining enthusiastic endorsements from some committee Republicans.
As the first day of hearings developed before a three-deep standing-room-only crowd in one of the Senate's largest hearing rooms, the atmosphere grew increasingly tense, and staff aides watching Ms. Baird from the podium said they saw occasional signs that she was becoming emotionally upset.
Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, pushed her nearly to tears when, raising his voice, he demanded to know whether she understood how other Americans faced child-care problems and obeyed the law in doing so.
"Do you understand that the vast majority of the people have a similar need [for child care]?" Mr. Biden said. "Tens of thousands have trouble taking care of their children -- with one-50th of the income you and your husband have -- and they do not violate the law. You are aware of that, aren't you?"
Almost inaudibly, Ms. Baird answered, "Yes."
After that exchange, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the committee's top Republican, commented: "Sometimes the law is an ass, sometimes these laws are very difficult to comply with."
Sympathetically, he asked her, "You and your husband are not immigration lawyers, are you?" She replied: "No, we are not."
Senator Biden shot back at the nominee, "There was never any time, any doubt, that you violated the law; did you?"
Before she could answer, Mr. Hatch countered: "She made that clear. Certainly it was upsetting; it was an honest mistake; you are trying to make it right; I accept that. . . . I intend to support you. I will support you."
Mr. Biden had opened the hearings with ridicule of the notion that the violation of immigration law in the alien-hiring incident was a "technical violation, unimportant."
"It is a matter I view most seriously," he said. "Everybody does not do it. It is not technical."
When Mr. Hatch began his remarks at the opening, he told Ms. Baird: "You're one of the big-league home-run hitters. . . . In our conversations, you have really come through. No doubt you'll be a great attorney general."
Ms. Baird is to return for a new round of questioning tomorrow, but plans by Chairman Biden to finish the hearings in one more day were in doubt last night.
At least two members of the committee have suggested that Ms. Baird's husband be summoned as a witness.
Moreover, the number of questions awaiting Ms. Baird from the panel appeared to be lengthening as yesterday's session moved along.
Repeatedly throughout yesterday's hearing, Ms. Baird, while taking "full responsibility" herself for a clear-cut, knowing violation of the law, suggested that her husband, Mr. Gewirtz, handled virtually everything in the legal and financial dealings with the Peruvian couple they hired as household employees for $250 a week each.
A new member of the Senate and of the committee, Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, an Illinois Democrat, wondered aloud whether Mr. Gewirtz would be called, and whether the Peruvians would appear. The chairman gave her an indefinite reply.
Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican with a reputation as the committee's most aggressive inquisitor, questioned the accuracy of Ms. Baird's testimony and suggested that she might want to check points again and then give written responses.
He, too, suggested that her husband might have to be a witness.
Ms. Baird several times suggested to the committee that she would have moved the legalities along faster than her husband did, if she had handled it herself. But, over and over again, she refused to say he was at fault.
At one point, she commented, almost plaintively:
"I allowed myself to be more concerned about the difficulties of child care [than with the law's requirements]. I was acting at that time more as a mother than as someone who would be sitting here [as attorney general-designate]."
The 40-year-old corporate lawyer answered unhesitatingly almost all questions put to her, although she begged off from some specific answers when asked about policy options the new administration may pursue.
Much of her testimony on policy issues appeared moderate in substance -- as, for example, when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, asked for her views on any plans the new administration may have for laws to protect abortion clinics from mass protests and violence by blockaders.
Her answer treated the free-speech rights of the protesters as a matter of the same concern as the abortion rights of clinic patients. She did say later that "I consider myself pro-choice [on abortion]."