The Senate yesterday voted 52 to 48 to confirm Clarence Thomas as the 106th justice of the Supreme Court in a tense but low-key conclusion to its emotionally charged probe of sexual harassment charges against him.
Thomas, 43, a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals here, will succeed retired associate justice Thurgood Marshall and become the second black, after Marshall, to sit on the nation's highest court. A conservative, he is expected to reinforce the conservative majority on the court.
The margin of victory was much closer than Republicans had predicted before last week, when allegations of sexual harassment against Thomas by Anita F. Hill, a former aide, caused a national uproar. Still, only three of 13 Democrats who had declared their support for Thomas ended up voting against him.
Hill's charges that Thomas harassed her while she worked for him at the Education Department and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the early 1980s delayed the confirmation vote by a week and prompted an unprecedented weekend of hearings that held the nation spellbound for three days.
Yesterday's vote was the closest this century for a successful Supreme Court nominee. The record for the largest number of negative votes had been the 33 senators who opposed William H. Rehnquist when he was elevated from associate justice to chief justice in 1986.
On the roll call yesterday, watched by a packed visitors' gallery, 11 Democrats joined 41 Republicans to confirm Thomas. Forty-six Democrats and two Republicans opposed confirmation.
The three Democrats who switched and ended up opposing Thomas's confirmation were Sens. Harry Reid (Nev.), Richard H. Bryan (Nev.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.).
The 10 who stuck with Thomas were J. Bennett Johnston (La.), John B. Breaux (La.), Dennis DeConcini (Ariz.), Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), J. James Exon (Neb.), Alan J. Dixon (Ill.), Sam Nunn (Ga.), Wyche Fowler Jr. (Ga.), Ernest F. Hollings (S.C.), and David L. Boren (Okla.). Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), who had said he was undecided, also voted for confirmation.
The only Republicans who opposed confirmation were Sens. Bob Packwood (Ore.) and James M. Jeffords (Vt.), who came out against Thomas before the harassment charges were aired.
Standing in the rain outside his house in Alexandria last night with his wife Virginia Lamp Thomas, the judge thanked his family, friends and neighbors and said that now, with the bitter fight over, it was "not a time for anger or for animus or animosity."
"I think that no matter how difficult or how painful the process has been that this is a time for healing in our country, that we have to put these things behind us, that we have to go forward, and that we have to begin to look for ways to solve problems that I think became apparent through this process, and certainly have been apparent in our country for some time."
Thomas said he was "not presumptuous enough" to predict when he would be sworn in as a member of the court by Chief Justice Rehnquist.
President Bush, who watched the vote on television with his wife Barbara, called Thomas earlier to congratulate him. "Judge Thomas has demonstrated to the Congress and to the nation that he is a man of honesty, dedication and commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law," Bush said in a written statement.
On July 1, the day Bush nominated him, Thomas stood by the president's side at Kennebunkport, Maine, his voice choking with emotion as he thanked the grandparents who raised him and the nuns who taught him. At the time he seemed an invincible candidate, a favorite of conservatives and a black man whose story of self-made triumph over segregation and poverty offered a compelling personal story.
But Thomas's performance during five days of testimony before the Judiciary Committee, when he disavowed many of his writings and refused to give his views on abortion, eroded some of that support. Yet the Senate seemed ready to confirm him by a comfortable margin a week ago until reports of Hill's allegations resulted in a week's postponement of the vote and last weekend's extraordinary Judiciary Committee hearings.
Embarrassed by its mishandling of Hill's charges and drained by the fury of the committee's weekend of hearings, the Senate -- exhausted and chastened -- yesterday conducted what amounted to awkwardly polite dialogue broken only rarely by echoes of the weekend's rage.
Even the suspense was largely gone as the 6 p.m. vote approached. By midday, it was clear that Bush, who lobbied wavering senators by telephone, and John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), Thomas's Senate mentor, had enough votes to assure confirmation.
But only a few senators were not in their chairs when the roll call began. Vice President Quayle, who had rushed back from a political trip to Ohio, was in the presiding officer's chair, although he reportedly had been informed some time before that his vote would not be needed to break a tie. The galleries were motionless and quiet.
The summations of Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) and Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) reflected the distaste of the Senate for the ordeal it had just gone through and to some extent its ambivalence in voting on Thomas.
"To some, it became not a search to truth but a search and destroy mission," Mitchell said in reference to the hearings. "It sent a chilling message to women everywhere: If you complain about sexual harassment, you will be doubly victimized," added the Democratic leader, who voted against Thomas.
But Mitchell said the harassment charges were not the primary reason for his vote. "Judge Thomas is not the best qualified person in America to be on the Supreme Court, as claimed by the president," Mitchell said. Nor was he the "best qualified African American to be on the Supreme Court," he said. Instead, Mitchell added, Thomas was a "nominee willing to say whatever was necessary to win confirmation" and "it's worked."
"Give him the benefit of the doubt; he deserves that much," said Dole, who supported confirmation. Thomas spent "107 days hanging out there twisting in the wind," Dole added. "He has withstood the test; he is a stronger person for it."
The Senate's two female members, Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) and Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), voted with their party's majorities.
Kassebaum, who had criticized the Judiciary Committee for its handling of Hill's allegations, said she was most troubled by the way Hill was encouraged by Senate aides to lodge the charges. She concluded that it would be wrong to "destroy a Supreme Court nominee" when his denial was just as credible as the charge against him and cast her vote for Thomas.
Mikulski bitterly derided suggestions by Hill's critics on the Judiciary Committee that she had fantasized the allegations against Thomas, saying Hill's only fantasy was about "the fairness of the process" that judged her charges. "What we saw was not a hearing but an inquisition . . . and senators who rushed into the role of inquisitors," she said, adding that Hill's experience would deter other women from complaining when confronted with sexual harassment on the job.
In one of the angriest speeches of the day, Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), president pro tempore of the Senate and chairman of its Appropriations Committee, accused Thomas of "stonewalling" and appealing to "race hatred" in order to divert attention from Hill's allegations.
Byrd said he had been prepared to vote for Thomas before the hearings but came away from them believing Hill and "offended" by Thomas's refusal to listen to her testimony before the committee. "What kind of judicial temperament does that represent?" Byrd asked.
Referring to Thomas's bitter accusation against the Judiciary Committee last Friday that he was being subjected to a "high-tech lynching," Byrd charged that Thomas was attempting "to shift ground . . . to fire the prejudices of race hatred" as a diversionary tactic. In the process, Thomas unfairly indicted the whole Senate, complained Byrd, who yields to none in his defense of senatorial powers and traditions.
"I think it was blatant intimidation and . . . I think it worked," he said.
"If there's a cloud of doubt, this is the last chance. . . . This is it. You'll live with this decision for the next 30 years," he added, while acknowledging that it was clearly too late to change many votes.
The administration's quest for nine Democratic votes to add to the 41 Republicans that were in hand -- enough to produce at least a 50-50 tie that could be broken by Quayle -- got underway Monday when DeConcini and Johnston reaffirmed their support for Thomas.
By early yesterday morning, Shelby and Breaux added their support in television interviews. Shortly after the Senate convened for its eight hours of debate, Exon, who had begun the drumbeat of demands for a delay in the previously scheduled vote last week, took the floor to say he would vote for confirmation "but not enthusiastically."
Gradually, many of the senators who had declined previously to take a position came forward, lining up largely against Thomas, as was expected in most cases. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who had indicated earlier he was leaning toward Thomas, came out against him. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) arrived at a similar conclusion, saying he was unable to "rid myself of doubts" about Thomas that grew with time instead of being resolved.
But Robb came out for Thomas, saying: "I am swayed by witnesses on Judge Thomas' behalf who know both Judge Thomas and Professor Hill and sided with Judge Thomas. . . . Those who know him best are his most ardent supporters."
As the debate began in the Senate and the victory that last week seemed be slipping away from them appeared imminent, White House aides insisted that Bush and other administration officials had had no coordinated strategy to discredit Hill.
Asked what the role of administration officials was, if not to provide ammunition against the University of Oklahoma law professor, White House press secretary Martin Fitzwater said, "There were people that helped with the hearings." Pressed on the issue, Fitzwater said he had "struggled here at the podium for three days . . . to never say anything negative about Anita Hill. And our strategy and our purpose and our intent from the beginning was never to do that. And that was presidentially directed."
In Norman, Okla., Hill said last night that she hoped that the outcome of the Senate hearings would not stop others from complaining about harassment in the workplace, the Associated Press reported.
"The issue of sexual harassment is now part of a dialogue," Hill told reporters outside her house as her mother stood next to her. She declined to comment specifically on the Senate vote.
Staff writers Ann Devroy, Guy Gugliotta, Eric Pianin and John E. Yang contributed to this report.