WASHINGTON -- The Senate Judiciary Committee heard consumer advocate Ralph Nader roundly denounce Supreme Court nominee Stephen G. Breyer yesterday, but that blast was offset by the highest praise from the American Bar Association.
After a day of listening to pros and cons about the nomination from public witnesses, highlighted by a testy match of wits between senators and Mr. Nader, the panel finished its hearings and planned to vote next week -- perhaps as early as Tuesday.
Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, said the full Senate might vote by the end of next week.
The outcome of Senate review is not in doubt: Judge Breyer is expected to get unanimous approval in the Judiciary Committee to replace retiring Justice Harry A. Blackmun, and could get the full Senate's endorsement with no negative votes. He thus would join the court well in advance of the next term's opening Oct. 3.
Yesterday, Mr. Nader livened an otherwise slow-moving hearing by jousting with three senators over his suggestion that Judge Breyer as a federal appeals court member has been biased in favor of big business, and has been "insensitive" to the problems of people faced with safety and health hazards caused by major corporations.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who is the nominee's chief Senate supporter, told Mr. Nader that he had been unfair with his "blatant and flavored characterizations" of the Breyer record.
At one point, Mr. Nader turned his attention to White House counsel Lloyd N. Cutler -- a Washington "superlawyer" who is retaining some ties to his corporate law practice while temporarily serving President Clinton.
Claiming that Mr. Cutler had taken a major role in picking Judge Breyer for the Supreme Court to help the Cutler firm's "giant" corporate clients, Mr. Nader said the lawyer was running "at large in the White House," influencing all manner of policy.
Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, demanded specific evidence of Mr. Cutler's influence and power, but Mr. Nader shot back: "It's up to him [Mr. Cutler] to come clean."
Mr. Nader's heavy criticisms of Mr. Cutler prompted the lawyer to send a letter to the committee defending himself, and noting that over the years he had been a frequent target of Mr. Nader.
The final day of hearings began with two American Bar Association leaders describing how an investigation of the nominee's credentials led to a conclusion that he deserved the ABA's highest rating: "well qualified" for the Supreme Court. Washington attorney Robert P. Watkins said his 15-member reviewing committee had voted unanimously to give the judge that grade.
The last-round hearing also demonstrated how far the abortion issue -- often the dominant one in the committee's review of Supreme Court nominees in recent years -- had nearly vanished.
Paige Comstock Cunningham, president of Americans United for Life, a legal advocacy organization in the anti-abortion movement, challenged Judge Breyer's nomination because Mr. Clinton had said he wanted to name Supreme Court justices who favored abortion rights.
"We must assume that Judge Breyer has passed" that "litmus test," she said.
But, after she finished, Ms. Cunningham was asked no questions. Even Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican who is one of the Senate's strongest foes of abortion, confined himself to telling her that her points had been "well-taken." But, he quickly added, "I don't think single issues should stop a person from serving on the Supreme Court, regardless of whether that person is qualified."