WASHINGTON -- Corporate lawyer Zoe Baird's nomination to be U.S. attorney general slipped into deepening trouble last night, threatening a painfully embarrassing defeat for President Clinton in his first few days in office.
As a second day of hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee wore on yesterday amid a rising public outcry, behind-the-scenes maneuvering pointed toward an effort to scuttle the nomination because Ms. Baird and her husband had broken the law in hiring two illegal aliens to be a baby sitter and a driver.
As support visibly melted in a number of senators' blunt declarations of opposition, a committee Democrat, insisting on anonymity, said an effort would be made to get the nomination withdrawn without a vote in the committee or on the Senate floor. Some of the president's own advisers were also suggesting that to him, the Los Angeles Times reported today.
The aim of that effort would be to try to cut the president's political losses, save him from calling so early on Democrats for a face-saving vote, and allow him to move on to pick another nominee to run the already troubled Justice Department.
The nominee herself, asked directly by Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., about withdrawal, replied: "I don't believe that would be appropriate." Arguing she had a "chance to be a great attorney general," she said that her overall record "should override the particulars, in my mind."
Even so, it appeared last night that only the president himself was in a position to save Ms. Baird's chances to join his Cabinet, and then only if he pushed Democrats to act out of loyalty to him, a number of senators said privately. Clearly, Democrats were hoping not to be put in that position, one of them said.
Ms. Baird, the first woman ever nominated to be attorney general, began losing support early yesterday as one of the women senators, Republican Nancy L. Kassebaum of Kansas, became the first to declare opposition. Two Republicans on the committee, Sens. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming and Larry Pressler of South Dakota, and four more GOP senators, Larry E. Craig of Idaho, Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Slade Gorton of Washington, then said they were opposed.
Quickly, five Democrats -- none on the committee -- joined the opposition: Sens. David L. Boren of Oklahoma, J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, John B. Breaux of Louisiana and Jim Exon of Nebraska.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., made minimal statements of support for Ms. Baird while urging that judgment be withheld until the hearing ended.
Several hours before the "no" votes began piling up, White House communications director George Stephanopoulos told reporters: "The president continues to think she'd make a good attorney general. . . . Right now, Zoe Baird is his nominee."
When asked about about Mr. Clinton's personal knowledge of the violation of law before he chose her, Mr. Stephanopoulos said the details and timing were "rather murky."
"I don't know the nature of his exact discussions on this. Zoe Baird . . . did disclose this to the transition team," he said. When they met face to face, the spokesman added: "I do not believe they had a discussion about it, no. I do not know what level of detail he knew about the situation."
Ms. Baird told the committee last night the subject did not come up in what she called her "general" interview with Mr. Clinton. But she volunteered the information when a senior transition official asked if she was interested in the job.
Earlier this month, Clinton spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers had said: "It was fully disclosed. He [Mr. Clinton] considered it and did not think it was a problem."
Meanwhile, a CNN/Gallup poll found strong opposition to Ms. Baird's confirmation.
Only 23 percent of 600 adults surveyed said she should be confirmed while 63 percent were opposed. Over half said she thought she was above the law.
The poll had a margin of error of five percentage points.
Senators continued to report that their mail and telephone logs were showing a heavy negative reaction to the prospect of having Ms. Baird as the nation's top law enforcement officer after she had violated one of the laws she would be sworn to enforce.
Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's office had received 700 calls -- only one or two in favor of Ms. Baird -- as of yesterday afternoon. Her Maryland Democratic colleague, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, reported "several hundred" calls.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., a Judiciary Committee member, told reporters: "If she has supporters in Vermont, they've preserved their anonymity."
Ms. Baird's most vocal supporter on the committee, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, complained to reporters: "She's being smeared by a telephone campaign." He refused to answer when asked who could be orchestrating such an effort.
The Judiciary Committee was proceeding in public yesterday as if the nomination were still going to be moved forward. Ms. Baird stayed on the witness chair until 9:18 p.m., when the committee finished its questioning of her. No definite plans were made for today beyond the committee's desire to question her husband, Yale Law professor Paul Gewirtz.
Although Ms. Baird has repeatedly taken full responsibility personally for violating the law by hiring aliens without any legal papers, she has also said over and over again that all of the legal and financial arrangements were made by her husband.
Senators from both parties on the committee demanded that Mr. Gewirtz appear, and the panel's Democratic leaders agreed reluctantly; they reportedly had feared that his appearance could only exaggerate the focus on the illegal aliens' hiring as the dominant issue of Ms. Baird's nomination.
Most members of the committee tried energetically yesterday to bring up other issues, but these were overshadowed by a return to further details -- and much repetition of already known details -- about the aliens controversy.
In the summer of 1990, Ms. Baird and Mr. Gewirtz hired a XTC Peruvian couple when their efforts to find an American baby sitter for their 8-month-old son, Julian, failed. Months passed before the parents sought Labor Department permission to hire the aliens, and the aliens' employment taxes were not paid until Ms. Baird was designated for a post in the Clinton Cabinet.
The couple last weekend paid a $2,900 civil penalty for breaking the law, and earlier this month paid some $12,000 in past-due employment taxes and penalties on the advice of aides in the new administration.
Although the illegal-aliens controversy was the source of the deepening Senate reluctance to vote for Ms. Baird's nomination, her lack of law enforcement experience also was brought up yesterday as another negative issue.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., saying she wants to send a message to the Clinton administration, told Ms. Baird that "the best interests of the United States -- in terms of the attorney general [selection] -- would be to have someone who understands law enforcement and the use of federal law as a deterrent to crime."
Telling the nominee "I would like to be able to vote for you," Ms. Feinstein later wondered aloud whether Ms. Baird would be a truly energetic leader in the fight against violent crime. The senator told reporters she was not sure that Ms. Baird "has the fire in the belly" to take on such a task.
In answering the senator's questions, Ms. Baird insisted strongly that she would be a tough prosecutor of crime. "I believe I can create public confidence through results," she said.