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CONFIRMATION DELAY IS BIG BLOW TO BUSH

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The Senate's agonized decision to postpone a vote on Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas is a major blow to President Bush and raises substantial doubts that the nomination can survive.

But the debacle also focuses fresh attention on Congress' own shortcomings and its stumbling efforts to deal with sensitive problems.Less than a week after the confirmation of Thomas seemed assured, shellshocked White House allies found themselves scrambling to piece together a salvage operation. The task of disputing allegations by a former Thomas aide, University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill, that he sexually harassed her a decade ago was turning out to be a formidable one.

White House aides were surly and those close to the president were expressing incredulity over what was happening. To disprove the charges, the White House provided reporters with names and telephone numbers of people who would speak on Thomas' behalf.

Thomas supporters conceded Tuesday night that they didn't think they had the needed 51 votes at the time to win his confirmation. "I can count," said a dispirited Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas.

The weeklong delay will give opponents of Thomas more time to muster their arguments. And the gravity of the charges provides an easy fig leaf for any wavering senator to cast a vote against him. Supporters counter that it will also give Thomas a chance to clear his name. But few were taking odds on the outcome.

For Bush, who staked so much on the nomination, the delay was a particularly bitter pill to swallow. By all accounts, he was incensed by the developments that seemed to be snatching yet another domestic victory from him.

Despite his immense popularity in the international arena and his high public approval ratings, the president has had a woeful time getting anything through Congress. Most of his legislative proposals - from education, crime and transportation bills to his long-pushed proposal for lower capital gains taxes - have languished in Congress.

And he has had a particularly hard time with his nominees. John Tower was rejected as Defense secretary because of allegations that he was a womanizer and an alcoholic. And Bush's current choice for CIA director, Robert Gates, is snarled in allegations that as deputy director he slanted intelligence data to fit Reagan administration political views.

Some critics have suggested that Bush has nominated individuals for office who don't have much of a moral compass - and thus the problems encountered in both the Thomas and Gates nominations. But the issue goes beyond Bush's problems with the Democratic-run Congress.

"It is incontrovertible that this takes the confirmation process to a new low," said political analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. "It just reinforces the notion that the way to get people now is to pick up dirt on them. We are living through the era of the politics of scandal," Ornstein said.