WASHINGTON -- Attorney General-designate Janet Reno, blending anecdotes about her life as a prosecutor with politically careful answers to questions, appeared yesterday to be winning overwhelming and possibly unanimous support in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The last member of President Clinton's Cabinet seemed certain to win final Senate approval in a matter of days, becoming the nation's first female attorney general. Her mission will be to rebuild the Justice Department, a 90,000-employee agency in deep distress over scandal and political maneuvering.
Ms. Reno's main strength in the Senate was coming from members' positive reactions to her 15-year record as a local prosecutor in Miami. She was careful to dwell at length on that background, volunteering details at every turn.
She is to return for further questioning by the committee this morning, but there were, as of last night, no votes against her on the panel, committee sources said. A Senate panel vote of approval could come tomorrow and possibly even later today if all the senators get their questions answered.
Only twice did Ms. Reno experience tense moments yesterday, as two Republican senators sought to quiz her on the Justice Department's recent unsuccessful effort to get a mostly white jury ousted from trying a black Democratic member of Congress, Tennessee Rep. Harold E. Ford, on bank fraud charges. Republicans are convinced that the White House intervened politically in that episode as a favor to the Congressional Black Caucus, headed by Maryland Democratic Rep. Kweisi Mfume.
Although she came close to saying she thought the department had done the right thing in seeking a different jury, Ms. Reno would not say that in so many words. She also would not say what she would have done if she became involved in a similar situation, saying she had learned as a prosecutor never to answer "what if" questions.
The Republicans' questioning on the Ford case prompted a personal complaint by a member of the Black Caucus who sits on the committee, Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, an Illinois Democrat. She said it was "a red herring" to bring up the Ford jury issue with Ms. Reno, and she soundly defended the Black Caucus' attempt to intervene against what she called a "gerrymandered jury."
Ms. Reno vowed to run a non-political Justice Department and said somewhat sheepishly that she would try to find a way to throw even senators out of her office if they come to improperly badger her about pending cases.
Ms. Reno, in discussing a wide variety of issues she would face at the troubled Justice Department, gave the senators a mix of promises of tough prosecution and vows to make sure peoples' rights were observed.
Repeatedly, she talked of dealing with the crime problem as much by trying to work out broad social correctives as by heavily using criminal prosecutions. One of her Senate sponsors, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., described her to the committee as "part social worker, part crime fighter."
She blamed a good deal of the nation's street crime, particularly that committed by youths, on the way children begin to learn about violence by seeing it inside their own families. "Until we focus on violence in the family," she said, "we're going to continue to have these terrible problems in the streets."
Several senators made clear, in private remarks in the committee room, that they were favorably impressed not only by what she said during the hearings but also by a strongly supportive, and still secret, FBI background check on her.
During the public hearings, several senators made passing references to "scurrilous allegations" that had been made against her by some of her Florida critics and political adversaries, but each senator stressed that none of those "rumors" had checked out. Although the senators did not mention what those rumors were, they mainly were claims that Ms. Reno had been stopped for drunken driving.
Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden, Jr., said that committee investigators talked to the people who had floated the rumors, and remarked that "some of those people were bizarre."