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BIDEN GRILLS BAIRD; HATCH DEFENDS HER

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Clinton may push passage of Religious Freedom Restoration Act, A10.

Maybe old habits are hard to break. But Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden, D-Del., grilled a presidential nominee Tuesday and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, defended her - a routine of the past 12 years of Republican presidencies.But what was unexpected this time is that the nominee Tuesday was Democratic President-elect Clinton's choice for attorney general, Zoe Baird.

During grilling by Biden, Baird, 40, acknowledged she knowingly and willfully violated U.S. Immigration law three years ago by hiring a couple from Peru who were in America illegally to watch her child and act as her chauffeur. She also failed to pay Social Security taxes for them.

This month, she and her husband paid a $2,900 civil fine and back Social Security taxes, penalties and interest. As attorney general, she would oversee U.S. Immigration law.

Biden said, "I do not share the attitude I have heard expressed by some that this violation is unimportant because everyone does it. Everybody does not do it. It is not a technical violation of the law. And the country needs to know the attorney general is not above the law."

But Hatch, who is the new ranking Republican on the committee, said, "Ms. Baird has taken appropriate steps to meet her legal obligations. I am satisfied that this episode should not disqualify a well-qualified and talented individual such as Ms. Baird from public service."

The hearing, which opened Tuesday, is not expected to conclude until possibly next week. And some Republicans have indicated they may not be as forgiving as Hatch. Sen. Larry Pressler, R-S.D., said he would oppose Baird if hearings showed she knowingly hired illegal aliens or knowingly did not pay their taxes.

And Baird acknowledged Tuesday that happened. But she apologized, saying, "It was wrong. I take full responsibility for it."

She explained that she and her husband had been searching for months for a nanny who could live in because of their hectic schedule (both are attorneys), and could find no one appropriate.

When they found the Peruvian couple, Baird said, Immigration lawyers told them hiring them would be a "technical violation of the law" that is not often enforced, and that they could pursue a process to help the couple obtain "green cards" to work legally.

She said they were told they could not pay Social Security taxes for them until they actually received Social Security numbers. Baird said they never tried to hide the hiring from authorities and disclosed it to try to help the couple gain documents.

"My action was wrong," Baird said. "But frankly, I was acting more like a mother than someone sitting here as a nominee for attorney general."

But Biden said, "There are people out there who make one-fiftieth the amount of money you do, and they did not violate the law." He added that if Baird had tried to cover up or justify her actions at all, he would have opposed her - but likely will not now because of her openness and other qualifications.

Hatch told Baird that her actions to tell the committee, the FBI and others about the hiring and to pay the fines means "I think you have put it behind you."

He added, "I accept your explanations. I don't think it disqualifies you. Further, I think anyone that says it should is being hypercritical."