WASHINGTON -- Clinton administration officials said yesterday that if Senate Republicans continued to block the nomination of Bill Lann Lee to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, the president would appoint him anyway while the Senate is in recess.
"If there is no movement, the White House is prepared to go ahead," a senior administration official said on condition of anonymity.
Another official said that the administration intended to exhaust its options on Capitol Hill before making such a move, a rarely used maneuver that would temporarily circumvent the need for Senate approval of a nomination and would surely set off a huge fight with the Republican-controlled Congress.
The administration's strategy, a third official said, would be to try to build public pressure for Lee throughout the week, and if Republicans "give no indication that they are coming to their senses," the Clinton administration would proceed with the recess appointment early next week. Officials are researching the history of such appointments.
The Constitution gives a president the authority to fill vacant positions while the Senate is in recess. If Clinton were to appoint him, Lee would be able to serve at least until the Senate adjourned next autumn, unless the Senate voted earlier to remove him.
Clinton hinted broadly last week that he would make the so-called recess appointment despite the political risks. Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, urged Clinton in a letter over the weekend not to take that route.
"The Committee has spoken," Hatch wrote, noting that Lee lacked the requisite support on the judiciary panel to move the nomination to the Senate floor, although the committee has not actually voted. Hatch, who has led the opposition to Lee's appointment, added that it was "neither unfair nor unusual" that the full Senate would not consider the nomination, since Lee had been "unable to garner the support" of the committee.
Hatch warned that the historical reluctance of presidents to make recess appointments over the objections of any Senate committee was well-advised.
Conservatives have opposed Lee, the Western regional counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, saying he has promoted racial quotas by forcing companies into out-of-court settlements to avoid expensive trials. He would be the first Asian- American to be assistant attorney general for civil rights.
But administration officials said yesterday that they believed RTC public pressure on other Republicans could force Hatch and Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Republican leader, to relent and allow Lee's nomination to be voted on by the full Senate.
Others said there was little hope. One official said that while Hatch was talking with the administration, "we haven't seen the ice breaking."
The administration's strategy now is to promote Lee in an attempt to build such pressure. As one public gesture, several Justice Department officials, including Attorney General Janet Reno, turned a history lesson into a pep rally in support of Lee yesterday.
At a ceremony in the Great Hall of the Justice Department honoring the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Division, Reno made some of her most pointed remarks yet on Lee's behalf.
"Some say he should be denied the job simply as a payback for the rejection of past nominees," she declared. "Others say he should be rejected because he shares the views of the president affirmative action. I say no to that, and so does the president."
In an apparent reference to partisan allegations that Hatch was blocking the nomination in an attempt to shore up his credentials with conservatives, Reno said, "Civil rights in America should not be about politics." She went on: "No one denies that Bill Lann Lee is more than qualified for the job."
In a brief interview after the two-hour ceremony, Reno asserted: "We will do everything we can to see that he is the next assistant attorney general." Asked if the president were planning a recess appointment, she merely repeated that statement.
The ceremony took place beneath an array of pictures from the early days of the civil rights movement, when the Civil Rights Division was formed to combat racism.
They included a picture from 1963 of Robert F. Kennedy, then the attorney general, with John Lewis, then a civil rights leader and now a member of Congress from Georgia, and a picture of two water fountains, one marked "white" and a small one in the corner marked "colored."
Lewis, giving yesterday's keynote address, said, "Bill Lee has done nothing wrong but uphold the law of the land."
For his part, Lee spoke briefly, praising the Civil Rights Division and recalling his own beginnings as the son of Chinese immigrants who ran a laundry in New York.
Pub Date: 12/09/97