The Senate Judiciary Committee agreed yesterday, by a vote of 10 to 3 to recommend confirmation of Griffin B. Bell as Attorney General in President-elect Jimmy Carter's Cabinet.
But the vote indicated that continuing opposition to Bell might force the full Senate to postpone a vote on his nomination when it meets this afternon to confirm Carter's Cabinet choices.
Bell eventually is expected to win Senate approval by a big margin. However, if his nomination now becomes subject to a Senate floor debate, the vote on his confirmation could be delayed until next week.
The 58-year-old Atlanta lawyer and former federal appeals court judge became the most controversial of Carter's Cabinet nominees because of charges by civil rights groups that he helped to obstruct school desegregation in the South.
That was the consideration that yesterday led three liberal Republican members of the Judiciary Committee - Charles McC. Mathias (Md.), John Chafee (R.I.) and H. John Heinz III (Pa.) - to vote against him.
A fourth committee member, Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.), answered "present" when the vote was taken. Riegle said that, following two telephone conversations with Carter, he had agreed not to "obstruct the movement" of the Bell nomination to a Senate vote.
However, Riegle added that he was still troubled by Bell's record and had not decided how he will vote when it comes to confirmation.
Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd Jr. (D-W. Va.), who as a member of the Judiciary Committee voted for Bell, said yesterday that the Senate will consider the Cabinet nominations following today's inauguration ceremoniset.
Any nominations requiring a roll-call vote will be put over until Friday, Byrd said. As of last night, he added, no requests had been received for recorded votes.
However, some Senate sources said that a roll on Bell seems certain. The sources added that at least one senator, who is not on the Judiciary Committee, plant to ask that the vote be delayed until he has read the record of the committee's five days of hearings.
If such a request is made and granted, a vote on Bell would have to be postponed until after the weekend.
Since outgoing Attorney General Edward H. Levi, Deputy Attorney General Harold R. Tyler Jr. and Solicitor General Robert H. Bork have submitted their resignations effective today, that left some uncertainity about who would be in charge during the interim.
To cover the possibility of a delay in Bell's confirmation, the sources said, Levi has signed on order resignating Richard L. Thornburgh, assistant attorney general in charge of the Criminal Division, as acting Attorney General.
During the hearings, the opposition to Bell centered on charges that in the late 1950s he aided then Georgia Gov. Ernest Vandiver's "massive resistance" to school integration and that later, as a judge of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, he wrote opinions impending progress toward desegregation.
However, a number of other witnesses, including several Atlanta blacks, testified that, in their opinion, Bell had attempted to act as a moderating influence on Vandiver.
The 10 senators voting for Bell were committee Chairman James O. Eastland (D-Miss.), John L. McClellan (D-Ark.), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), James G. Abourezk (D-S.D.), Quetin N. Burdick (D-N.D.), James Sasser (D-Tenn.), Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and William L. Scott (R-Va.).
Committee action on Carter's other Cabinet nominees was completed yesterday when the Commerce Committee unanimously approved Juanita Kreps to be Secretary of Commerce and Brock Adam Juanita Kreps to be Secretary of Commerce and Brock Adams to be Secretary of Transportation.