WASHINGTON -- The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved Sandra Day O'Connor Tuesday for confirmation as the first woman justice on the Supreme Court.
Chairman Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., said his committee's three-day hearing last week showed the Arizona state appeals court judge has 'integrity, ability and compassion -- all the qualities a judge needs.'
Thurmond and others have predicted she will win Senate confirmation with little or no opposition with ample time for her to be sworn in before the court's fall session begins Oct. 5. The Senate vote is expected Monday.
Mrs. O'Connor told reporters later she was 'delighted' with the committee's action, and said: 'I am very pleased the committee was able to reach a conclusion.'
White House director of communications David Gergen also said President Reagan was 'delighted' with the vote and 'is looking forward to a strong vote in the Senate,' to confirm her nomination.
But doubts about Mrs. O'Connor's judicial views on the abortion issue prompted one member -- Sen. Jeremiah Denton, R-Ala. -- to voted 'present' instead of 'aye.'
Sen. John East, R-N.C., voted for confirmation, but joined Denton in decrying Mrs. O'Connor's refusal to say how she will vote on the abortion issue if it reaches the Supreme Court again.
Under intensive questioning in a three-day hearing last week, Mrs. O'Connor said abortion is personally 'repugnant' to her, but refused to discuss a 1973 Supreme Court decision that abortions are constitutionally permissible.
Denton, predicting Mrs. O'Connor may take part in many decisions concerning the meaning of human life, said, 'In an age of cloning and gene-splicing, that question may be the most important important of all.'
But he conceded Mrs. O'Connor had kept silent to avoid disqualifying herself from taking part in future abortion cases, and said he did not want to penalize her for what may be a fault in the confirmation process.
'Thus, Mr. Chairman, my vote is to respond 'present,'' Denton said.
Asked about Denton's vote, Mrs. O'Connor said, 'I appreciate his position and I certainly understand his position.'
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also a conservative, said Mrs. O'Connor 'made it clear that abortion is not something she supports.' He said she 'exhibited a very good approach toward judicial construction and upholding states' rights.'
'She made it quite clear that she doesn't believe her own personal beliefs should really color or influence the decisions she'll make later as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court,' Hatch said.
The conservatives' focus on abortion questions became an issue in final debating in the committee. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said a Supreme Court nomination should not be decided on a 'single issue.'
Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., Mrs. O'Connor's leading Senate sponsor, said in prepared remarks that the 'uproar' over abortion was a prime example of tendencies to decide broad questions on the basis of single issues.
'The abortion issue has nothing to do with being conservative or liberal,' Goldwater said. 'No single issue ever should decide the fitness of a Supreme Court justice.'
East said Mrs. O'Connor's responses -- in favor of the death penalty and preventive detention and against compulsory school busing -- indicate she will fulfill hopes of conservatives who want a change in the court's direction.
Mrs. O'Connor said in the confirmation hearings she does not believe in judicial 'activism' -- making law instead of merely interpreting it.