In an atmosphere of partisan bickering, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) agreed yesterday to consider beginning hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Appeals Court Judge Robert H. Bork a week earlier than scheduled.
But Biden indicated that he probably would retain Sept. 15 as the opening day for the hearings and again rejected a Republican demand that the committee set a date to vote on the nomination. He accused Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) of "cheap-shot" politics in criticizing the confirmation schedule.
"Dole is being his typical, partisan, cheap-shot self," Biden said after a committee meeting that was devoted to haggling over the Bork nomination.
Biden said he likely would use the week before Sept. 15 for hearings on the nomination of U.S. District Court Judge William S. Sessions to be director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He said he will decide the September hearing schedule after conferring with Democratic leaders.
Congress is scheduled to begin its traditional summer recess Aug. 8 and return Sept. 8.
The dispute in the Judiciary Committee was the latest round in a running battle in which Republicans have focused almost exclusively on the timing issue, accusing Biden and other Democrats of unnecessarily delaying action on the Bork nomination in hopes of killing it.
Yesterday's exchange was set off by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), the committee's ranking Republican, who read a prepared statement charging that "we have arrived at a point where delays on the Bork nomination are indefensible."
Thurmond, urging action on the nomination before the Supreme Court term begins Oct. 5, repeated a GOP demand that the Bork hearings begin Aug. 31 and that the Judiciary Committee agree to vote on the nomination by Sept. 15.
Thurmond recalled that last year, when he was the committee chairman, he negotiated similiar scheduling agreements with the Democrats for the nomination of Justice Antonin Scalia and the elevation of Justice William H. Rehnquist to chief justice.
"Our citizens do not understand why this process is taking so long," Thurmond said. "They hear promises of no partisan delays, but they see this committee taking more than two full months to begin hearings on the nominee."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) rushed to Biden's defense, saying the Scalia and Rehnquist accords were forced on the Democrats in return for GOP agreement to schedule certain witnesses who opposed the nominations. "I find that offensive," he said.
Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), a key swing vote on the committee, also supported Biden, but said that as soon as the hearings are over he will join Republicans in demanding an immediate committee vote on the Bork nomination.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa), another swing vote, made the proposal to begin the hearings a week earlier than Sept. 15 . Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate, agreed to consider this and then took aim at Dole, a candidate for the GOP nomination who said last week that Bork was a victim of "the Biden stall."
"What we're getting here is the Dole dribble," Biden said. He said he had suggested starting the hearings Aug. 15, thereby probably freeing himself earlier in the fall for intensive presidential campaigning, but that no one in either party was eager to return to Washington in the middle of the recess.
"So it comes as a great shock -- this Dole dribble," Biden said. "This is politics."