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Lee Nomination Fails as Panel Divides On Affirmative Action

By Roberto Suro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 14, 1997; Page A01

After provoking a bitter legislative debate over affirmative action, Bill Lann Lee's nomination to the nation's top civil rights job failed in the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, with his Democratic supporters vowing to resume the battle when Congress returns next year.

On the eve of adjournment for winter recess, committee Democrats blocked a vote on Lee after determining they would lose if one were taken. President Clinton must now decide whether to find a new candidate for the job, renominate Lee in the next session of Congress or give Lee an interim appointment while Congress is in recess.

Had he been approved, Lee would have been the administration's highest-ranking Asian American. The post of assistant attorney general for civil rights has been vacant since January, when Deval L. Patrick, who had served since 1993, resigned to go into private law practice.

Although they ostensibly lost the battle, Democrats seemed to relish the opportunity to engage in partisan combat over an issue that they hope will divide Republicans and hurt the GOP politically with women and minorities.

During a two-hour committee meeting that produced unusually harsh and personal exchanges, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) charged that Lee's nomination had become "a trophy to the extreme elements of the Republican Party." Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the only woman on the committee, spoke derisively of the committee's Republicans as "white men" unwilling to grant Lee a fair hearing.

Republicans responded in kind, with Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) practically challenging his opponents to a fight. "Anybody who doubts that I'm doing this on principle, I'd like to see afterwards," said Hatch, who has led the attack on Lee.

Hatch stated flatly that Lee, a California lawyer who spent more than 20 years working in the area of civil rights, "does not believe in equal opportunity for all Americans" but instead promotes a brand of racial preferences that the courts have deemed unconstitutional. Hatch said that he "bitterly resented" commentators and others who have transformed his opposition to Lee "into some sort of a racial matter."

Yet as the session ended, veteran civil rights leader Jesse L. Jackson confronted Hatch, accusing him of "putting your politics over your dignity," and saying that the treatment of Lee was "an extremely polarizing, hostile act."

The two men then stood toe-to-toe amid a crowd of people and exchanged rebukes. Hatch said, "I think you put your politics over your dignity by accusing people of being racist." As Hatch walked away, Jackson railed repeatedly, "It does not pass the smell test, it does not pass the smell test."

Nine of the 10 Republicans on the 18-member committee announced today that they were not only opposed to Lee's nomination but that they would reject a Democratic proposal to send the nomination to the full Senate without a recommendation. Certain that Lee would be rejected, Hatch was determined to proceed with a committee vote yesterday morning, but Democrats engaged in a series of parliamentary maneuvers to prevent the panel from considering the nomination.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) the sole Republican on the committee who voiced support for Lee, warned, "I think that a Republican decision to defeat Mr. Lee in committee will make it harder for us to elect a Republican president in the year 2000."

It is just that prospect, and the possibility that Republicans might pay a more immediate price in the midterm elections next year, that convinced Democrats that their parliamentary setback yesterday marked a long-term political victory.

"The Republicans may prevail today, but you do so at your peril," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), arguing that the minorities and women who benefit from affirmative action make up a majority of the nation's population.

Echoing that assessment, senior administration officials said the White House believed that further debate over the issues raised by the Lee nomination might weaken Republican resolve and eventually produce a victory in the Senate.

White House press secretary Michael McCurry tried to put the burden on the Senate's GOP leadership. Lee's nomination, he said, "is being blocked at this moment for reasons that have nothing to do with the qualifications, the experience, the record of the nominee."

Reminded that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss) has shown no sign of wavering on his opposition to Lee, McCurry said, "Well, [Lott's] suffering an embarrassment now because of this issue, and maybe that will lead him to rethink."

Most of the opposition to Lee focused on his advocacy of affirmative action and his interpretation of recent Supreme Court rulings on the use of racial preferences in government programs. During his confirmation hearing Lee emphasized the extent to which preferences are still permitted. Hatch and other Republicans argued that this was a willful misinterpretation of recent high court rulings that place strict limits on government use of racial differences.

Staff writer John F. Harris contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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