WASHINGTON -- With the nominee's rejection a virtual certainty, the Senate began Wednesday what is expected to be a bitter and historic confirmation debate over Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination.
Opening what he termed 'a significant constitutional debate over what is the role of government in the lives of its citizens,' Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Bork's conservative philosophy 'risks dangerous consequences' for minority and women's rights, privacy and free speech.
Contrary to Bork's philosophy that citizens have only those rights specifically stated in the Constitution, Biden said, 'Our rights come not as a gift from government, but as a gift from God.'
Opening debate in support of Bork, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the committee's ranking Republican, said the nominee is 'one of the most qualified individuals to be nominated to the Supreme Court in recent memory.'
'Judge Bork believes in law and order,' Thurmond said. '(Supporters) want a Supreme Court that is not going to reverse criminal verdicts on technicalities.'
The more than seven hours of discussion Wednesday, ending after 10 p.m. EDT, set the tone of the debate for the next few days.
'From the purchase of a home, to the ballot box, to the job site, to the indignity of 'whites only' signs in public places, to the schools of the nation's capital, Robert Bork has made a career of opposing simple justice, and he does not deserve a new career on the Supreme Court of the United States,' said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, charged that Bork's probable defeat will be the result of 'a dirty tricks political campaign' and a 'smear campaign' of newspaper and television ads devised by such anti-Bork groups as People for the American Way, Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League. The groups have defended their ads as accurate and well-documented.
As the much-delayed floor debate began in mid-afternoon, 54 senators -- 3 more than necessary to assure his defeat -- already had declared they intend to vote against confirming the controversial 60-year-old federal appeals judge to the nation's highest court. Five Republicans are among the opposed.
Forty senators have announced their intentions to vote for confirmation, while six others said they would disclose their positions during the debate that Senate leaders say could last from two to five days.
If rejected, Bork would be the 28th high court nominee denied confirmation in two centuries. Under the Constitution, the president has authority to make high court nominations and the Senate the power to confirm or reject them.
Reagan nominated Bork July 1 to replace retired Justice Lewis Powell.
Floor action began with no agreement on limiting debate. Some Republican senators, notably Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire, have said pro-Bork forces will need four or five days to make their case for Bork and to answer the widespread criticisms of his views on civil rights and civil liberties. Thurmond said he hoped debate would end by late Friday.
Bork's supporters are expected to hit hard at the theme - enunciated repeatedly in recent weeks by President Reagan -- that Bork's opponents outside of Congress distorted the nominee's record in their advertising and lobbying campaign against him. Reagan has likened Bork's critics to a 'lynch mob.'
But Bork's Senate opponents are expected to argue, as Biden did Wednesday, that the nominee's past and present views on privacy and on individual, minority and women's rights disqualify him from sitting on the Supreme Court.
Critics contend Bork is a right-wing ideologue whose confirmation would shift the high court dangerously to the right into the 20th century.
Both sides in the debate agree that Bork, a former Yale University Law School professor and former U.S. solicitor general, is a man of superior intellect and the highest professional qualifications.
The dispute centers on his judicial philosophy of 'original intent' as reflected in his writings and speeches and in his decisions over the last five years as a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
That philosophy holds that judges should not go beyond the framers' intentions as illustrated in the language of the Constitution and the debates surrounding its adoption 200 years ago.
Bork's opponents contend that philosophy takes the narrowest view possible of individual and minority rights.
The Judiciary Committee conducted 12 days of confirmation hearings and heard from 110 witnesses last month on the nomination. Bork himself testified for five days under often intense questioning about his views. Although many past high court nominees have been asked about their views, historians say no nominee has ever been quizzed over such a broad philosophical range as Bork was.
The committee voted 9-5 -- with one Republican joining eight Democrats -- two weeks ago to recommend that the Senate reject the nomination.