Congress's return this week was bad news for President Clinton's nominees who are stalled in the Senate and had been hoping for appointments while the lawmakers were in recess. But the White House concluded that the possibility of getting a few federal judges confirmed might be better than a handful of short-time appointees.

So no jobs, at least until the next recess, for a number of nominees, including former representative Jay Johnson (D-Wis.), now at Treasury, who was nominated to run the U.S. Mint; David Hayes, acting deputy secretary at Interior, who was nominated for the deputyship; and Carl Spielvogel, nominated to be ambassador to the Slovak Republic.

Sources said the White House decision turned on whether to recess-appoint Bill Lann Lee, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights. White House officials felt that if anyone were to be picked, it should be Lee. But that move would have infuriated the GOP-controlled Senate and scuttled a recent deal with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to move some long-pending judicial nominees.

During the recess, Clinton made nine appointments: Leonard Page at the National Labor Relations Board, Janie Jeffers and Marie Ragghianti at the U.S. Parole Commission, Luis Lauredo to be representative to the Organization of American States, Mark Schneider to be Peace Corps director, C. Gregory Stewart at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Frank Holleman to be deputy education secretary, Sarah M. Fox to the NLRB and Stuart E. Weisberg to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

Although the administration considered those moves noncontroversial, 19 Republican senators, led by James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, said yesterday the appointments of Weisberg and Fox "deliberately" and "clearly" violated an administration agreement with the Senate to clear recess appointments in advance. As a result, the senators moved to put "holds" on all judicial nominees.

Inhofe, in a statement, said Clinton had "chosen a path of confrontation which was totally avoidable."

But a White House official insisted there was no violation of the agreement. "The president never had commitments to Senator Inhofe," the official said, "only with Majority Leader Trent Lott and we have kept to the letter and spirit of the agreements we made with the majority leader," including on the appointments of Weisberg and Fox. Inhofe's views, he said, "did not reflect our conversations and understanding with the majority leader and we'll continue to work with him [Lott]." It's unclear how many judges could be confirmed even if the agreement between Lott and Clinton holds, one White House official said yesterday. He hoped for as many as 20.

For those keeping count, the White House says that Clinton has made 68 recess appointments in his first seven years, compared to 78 during President George Bush's term, 238 for Ronald Reagan and 69 under Jimmy Carter.

White House Makes Its Choice for NIH

Gerald D. Fischbach, an eminent brain scientist, former head of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital and now director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, is said to be the choice to direct the National Institutes of Health.

Fischbach and Steven E. Hyman, also a brain scientist and now director of the National Institute of Mental Health, were the two leading contenders for the prestigious post. The White House last week picked Fischbach to succeed Harold E. Varmus, who recently left to head Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

At State, Paying a Y2K Premium

The bills for the Y2K non-event keep coming in. Before New Year's, the State Department decided to pull a couple of hundred diplomats and their families out of places that looked particularly prone to disaster. These were garden spots such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg in Russia and the embassies in Kiev, Ukraine, and Chisinau, Moldova.

The feeling was taking them out was something like "buying an insurance policy," one department official explained. Given the degree of preparation in those countries, it was thought that computer glitches, which could play havoc with basic utility systems, were a distinct possibility.

So the families left on Dec. 27, going to Western Europe or home to the United States, and returned around Jan. 3. Nothing much happened in those countries, the official said, maybe because they were so backward in terms of computerization that they had manual backup systems.

Price tag? Not all bills are in but it looks like something on the order of $400,000.

$19 Billion and Counting . . .

Speaking of money, House Budget Committee Republicans have worked up a spreadsheet of the administration's various proposals for new spending in the next year. A Republican committee aide says the total, some $19 billion, comes from 70 spending proposals the administration either "has leaked or officially announced." They range from $1.5 million for the Martin Luther King Jr. home and burial site preservation to a couple of billion dollars for a missile defense system.

Well, as the late Senate Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen said, "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking about real money."