WASHINGTON -- With the unanimous and enthusiastic endorsement of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Miami prosecutor Janet Reno was on her way last night toward swift Senate approval as the first woman to be U.S. attorney general.
After two days in the committee's witness chair, Ms. Reno, 54, was approved by all 10 Democrats and eight Republicans on the panel, with members praising her background as a prosecutor and lauding her testimony.
Senate Democratic leaders scheduled a final vote on her nomination by the full Senate this afternoon. There was no doubt she would win final approval overwhelmingly there.
She could be sworn into office promptly after the Senate acts, completing President Clinton's Cabinet in his eighth week in office.
His first choice for the post, corporate lawyer Zoe E. Baird, and his second choice, federal Judge Kimba M. Wood, withdrew from the process after sharp public criticism over their use of illegal aliens for child care.
Ms. Reno's first major action as attorney general is likely to be in deciding what to do about the armed standoff of federal officers fTC with a militant religious cult at a stronghold outside Waco, Texas.
She is also expected to get actively involved in helping to oversee the continuing FBI and local police probe of the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City on Feb. 26.
The Judiciary Committee, criticized for its handling of sexual harassment charges during the nomination hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, seemed pleased with a chance to approve the pioneering appointment of a woman to a top government post.
The committee voted shortly after Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., one of two women senators put on the panel this year to assure women's voices in its deliberations, pronounced the day as "very significant . . . It is, in fact, history in the making."
Somewhat symbolically, one of the last questions to Ms. Reno was about her plans to create greater opportunities for women to serve in the Justice Department. She replied to Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.: "I hope I will set an example: if a woman can be attorney general of the United States, she can do anything."
Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden, Jr., D-Del., told Ms. Reno: "You've no idea how happy I am that a person of your background is going to be the attorney general."
During her two days as the only witness on her nomination, Ms. Reno did not stray at all from positions President Clinton has taken on criminal law issues and on future selection of federal judges. But she repeatedly promised senators to study their favorite proposals.
She said that she, like the president, supports a mandatory waiting period before some individuals could buy hand guns, but she strongly resisted the idea that Congress should pass more stringent controls on handguns. She said many people need them for protection.
Gingerly, she discussed the sharp partisan disputes in Congress over major new anti-crime legislation, but managed to avoid endorsing any particular bills, asking for time to study them more carefully.
She strongly endorsed the idea that victims of crimes should be allowed to take part in official discussions about plea bargaining with their assailants and should be allowed to testify about their experience during trials.
When senators sought to pin her down on her reaction to ideas ranging from more money to deal with juvenile crime to more Border Patrol officers to deal with illegal immigrants, the attorney-general designate's usual response was a noncommittal: "I'd like to work with you on that, senator."
Senator Specter, telling the nominee that she had done "spectacularly well," said she had "known which questions to answer, and, perhaps more important, which ones not to answer."