Stephen G. Breyer's pragmatic judicial style resembles that of many Supreme Court nominees who preceded him. But his views of how government should regulate health and safety are boldly different.

That caught up with him yesterday in a final day of testimony marked by unusual senator testiness and nominee defensiveness.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) rebuked Breyer for his assertions of how government should set priorities for spending its environmental protection dollars. Breyer believes Washington often over-regulates and spends too much to buy "a little extra safety."

"I am delighted that as a judge you won't be able to take your policy prescriptions into the court," Biden told Breyer derisively, saying that the nominee appeared "presumptuous and elitist."

Another moment of fractiousness came when Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) asked Breyer whether his investments in Lloyd's of London caused a potential conflict of interest with his rulings on the federal appeals bench in Boston. Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) rushed to Breyer's defense and crossly told Metzenbaum he was distorting the record.

On the issues, Breyer presented a generous view of affirmative action and expounded on his pro-Congress stance that judges should rely on congressional floor speeches, committee reports and other elements of legislative history when interpreting a statute.

Breyer's approach on how to interpret a law puts him at odds with the dominant approach on the current Supreme Court, shown in the extreme by the sentiment of Justice Antonin Scalia that anything but the text of a statute is virtually worthless to judges.

Overall, however, nothing senators nor Breyer said in his third and last day of questioning appeared to compromise the near-unanimous committee support President Clinton's nominee enjoys.

"I think you're an able man and a fair man, and I hope you enjoy your career on the Supreme Court," said Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

Unlike past nominees, Breyer is a wizard at regulatory matters and economic analysis. He has argued that lawmakers fail to prioritize health and environmental problems. He also contends that government sometimes over-regulates and imposes high costs on business without any significant additional benefits to the public. He has criticized strict standards to get rid of "the last 10 percent" of toxic materials at a dump site, for example.

In response to questions yesterday from Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine), Breyer said, "The problem ... is spending a lot of money over here {in one particular health area} to save a statistical life that may not even exist, at the same time that there are women with breast cancer who would live but who don't, because they can't afford or find a place for the mammograms."

He told Cohen his writings on the subject are a "plea" for the public and policymakers to think about how money is being spent. He considers the public "ill-informed" about safety risks and costs.

Biden interjected and admonished Breyer that American culture leads Congress to regulate in ways that might not always be the most cost-effective. "We've concluded that as a culture we are going to, rightly or wrongly, spend the money ... on the elderly," he said as an example.

"I think it's incredibly presumptuous and elitist for political scientists to conclude that the American people's cultural values, in fact, are not ones that lend themselves to a cost-benefit analysis and presume that they would change their cultural values if, in fact, they were aware of the cost-benefit analysis," Biden said.

In a brief interview during a break in the hearings, Biden continued to blast Breyer's regulatory approach, calling it "Harvard-ese ... that offends me." But he said he is convinced Breyer's views are purely intellectual and will not enter his approach as a judge. Biden's criticism tapped into a recurring complaint, especially among consumer activists, that Breyer's economically-minded regulatory approach fails to account for the human condition.

"I hope what I'm doing is using the technical part to uncover the human purpose," Breyer said, adding under questioning to Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), that "a pocketbook is not guiding the decision" of any judge.

"I want to be very, very clear ... that {his recent book on regulation} doesn't have anything to do with my role as a judge," Breyer told Metzenbaum, who had accused him of "disdain" for the Environmental Protection Agency's priorities to lessen pollution.

At the end of the day, senators remained enthusiastic about the nominee. And regulatory questions were overall a small part of the hearings.

Under more routine questioning, Breyer said the country has long needed to use affirmative action in hiring to help blacks and other minorities.

He said court cases have recognized "that there are injustices that need remedying, and those injustices stem from that long history ... where the injustice was perpetrated."

He said courts must be careful, however, when it appears jobs may be taken away from white people who were not responsible for any prior discrimination. He said less concern arises when affirmative action takes away a promotion for a white person who already is on the job.

Breyer continued to defend his decision to sit on toxic waste cases that might have indirectly benefited the Lloyd's of London syndicate in which he had invested. He insisted that he had done nothing wrong ethically. The majority of senators appear to agree with him.