President Reagan has decided to name federal appeals Judge Anthony M. Kennedy to the Supreme Court, White House officials said yesterday.
The officials said Reagan decided to nominate Kennedy, 51, a judge from Sacramento who is considered a moderate conservative, after a half-hour meeting with him in the White House residence on Monday that also was attended by White House chief of staff Howard H. Baker Jr. and Attorney General Edwin Meese III.
The announcement will be made today if Federal Bureau of Investigation checks are completed, a White House official said. If not, the official said, the announcement will be made Thursday.
Reagan is expected to press for quick confirmation to fill a crucial swing seat on the high court that has been vacant since June 26 and overcome the embarrassment of two previous failed nominations. But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said yesterday that hearings are "probably not likely" before January.
Officials said the administration will try to mute the harsh political rhetoric that characterized the debate on both sides over the nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork and seek bipartisan support for Kennedy. But in the aftermath of Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg's withdrawal Saturday as a nominee for the court, new battles have erupted in Republican ranks over who was to blame for the debacle.
Democrats and moderate Republicans blamed Meese, who pushed for Ginsburg. Baker was attacked by conservatives for abandoning Ginsburg after it was disclosed that Ginsburg had smoked marijuana as a Harvard law professor and by some others for not being forceful enough in opposing him in the first place.
On Monday, conservative Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) assailed "gutless wonders" on the White House staff but did not name them. Yesterday, Baker's defenders fought back, led by moderate Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine), who said, "These attacks only confirm the fact that you can get mugged more easily on the back stairs of the White House than you can on the streets of any urban ghetto."
The administration maneuvered cautiously in advance of the announcement, with White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater saying that Kennedy was being subjected to a "very thorough kind of background analysis" to determine if anything would cause embarrassment when he is nominated. But Reagan inadvertently confirmed that he had made a decision, saying in a morning picture-taking session that there would be a "better opportunity" to discuss it "later in the day."
A White House official said that the staff had not discussed the timing of the announcement with the president.
The White House postponed a scheduled meeting between Kennedy and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who had objected to the forthcoming nomination. A White House official said it would have been "inappropriate" for Kennedy to have called on Helms before he was nominated and that it "could have left the impression that Helms had a veto power on the nomination."
Helms said he had no problems with the postponement. "I'm relieved to see this outburst of prudence at the White House," he said.
White House concerns about the appearance of a Helms-Kennedy meeting were reflected in comments by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) before he knew that the meeting had been called off. "I'd be very concerned about having any senator of either party having a veto power over a nominee for the Supreme Court of all the United States," Leahy said.
In defending Baker, Cohen charged in a Senate speech that the White House chief of staff was being "shoved overboard by the ideologically pure" in the Republican Party simply because he was seeking a "confirmable conservative" for the Supreme Court.
Moreover, it was conservatives, not Baker, who were responsible for Ginsburg's withdrawal, Cohen suggested. When Ginsburg's use of marijuana was disclosed, "it was a group of conservatives who gathered on the floor and came to the conclusion that Judge Ginsburg had to go, not any liberals and not any moderates," Cohen said.
Hatch's attack on the White House staff and Cohen's defense of Baker reflected the deep divisions in the GOP that seem to be growing as the Reagan administration nears its final year.
Cohen suggested that the same conservatives who are blaming Baker for the Senate's rejection of Bork and the withdrawal of Ginsburg are opposing the intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) treaty with the Soviets and standing in the way of a compromise to cut budget deficits.
"Children of scorn are always more eager to find fault than to seek constructive solutions," Cohen said.
Cohen said Baker gave up his own presidential campaign to help an administration "in danger of being swamped" by the Iran-contra scandal and other problems, contributing a number of assets including "credibility -- something the White House was in desperate need of at that time."
Baker succeeded in substituting compromise for confrontation, but "the focus for the president's recent fall from grace has now shifted to the very man who rescued him from disaster," Cohen said.
Baker was blamed both for "failing to ring the alarm bells early enough" to save Bork and for suggesting that Bork moderate his views to win confirmation, Cohen said. "And now, the most reprehensible of all, he failed to lock Attorney General Meese in the basement of the Justice Department so Mr. Meese could not foist a law-and-order judge upon a law-and-order president at the last minute."
"It will fall to the Howard Bakers of this nation to hold up the governmental firmament while bearing the blame for not catching all the falling stars," Cohen concluded. "Right now, that is Howard Baker's fate. And, right now, it is also Ronald Reagan's and our good fortune."
Assistant Minority Whip Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) said he agreed with Cohen's statement "in its totality."
Meese said he didn't think his role in the administration "has been diminished in any way" by his role in the Ginsburg appointment while acknowledging that "I think it is amazing, hard to understand" how FBI background checks failed to turn up Ginsburg's marijuana use.
Reagan, asked about a column in yesterday's Washington Post by David S. Broder that termed Meese an "embarrassment" and said he should resign, defended Meese. "He's no embarrassment to me," Reagan said. "I've known him for 20 years and I've found him of sound mind and great loyalty and capability in all that time."
Staff researcher Michelle Hall contributed to this report.