President Clinton sought Monday to prevent a full-scale war with Republicans on his legislative agenda when he named the controversial Bill Lann Lee to be acting director of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
Though he still defied Senate Republicans who have blocked Lee’s nomination, Clinton chose a middle course by giving Lee the job in an “acting” capacity rather than making a “recess appointment” that the GOP warned would have soured relations with Congress on many fronts.
A recess appointment, so named because Congress is in recess until next year, would have enabled Lee to serve a year in the job with the full title and the responsibilities that go with it but without Senate confirmation.
With the “acting” designation, Lee can perform all the duties of the job for as long as Clinton wants. The distinction is more political and symbolic than real.
While the decision to make Lee acting assistant attorney general was meant to be somewhat conciliatory, it still had an in-your-face quality that upset many Republicans who oppose Lee’s strong support of affirmative action.
“I do not believe Bill Lann Lee should be assistant attorney general - even in an acting capacity - because of his positions advocating racial preferences and timetables,” said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
White House officials said Clinton backed away from a recess appointment because he did not want to risk even rockier relations with the GOP during the remaining three years of his second term. Yet Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Clinton will still have a hard time getting judicial nominations approved.
Clinton said he would resubmit Lee’s nomination to the Senate next year. He added he was confident Lee, who was western regional legal counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, would be confirmed after the American people have a chance to judge his performance.
“Some people want to wait for me to appoint someone to this position whom I disagree with,” the president said. “But America can’t afford to wait that long. And it would be a long wait indeed. I look forward to striking the word ‘acting’ from this title.”
But with mid-term congressional elections coming up in 1998, the chances for Lee’s confirmation appear dim. His nomination has been turned into a highly charged political battle over affirmative action and the use of racial preferences to help minorities advance.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he was pleased Clinton had not used a recess appointment to put Lee in the post and added that while he disagreed with the appointment, it is technically permissible.
Hatch said the panel had thoroughly considered Lee’s nomination and added, “I see no further committee action on the nomination in the coming year.”
As far as powers and duties are concerned, Lee will have the same authority as if he had been confirmed by the Senate or given a recess appointment, Clinton said.
But in politics, perceptions count. And in this case, both sides managed to save at least a little face with all the maneuvering.
Clinton gets the man he wanted into the job, perhaps for the rest of his term, while Senate Republicans can claim they refused to confirm someone they think would be overly aggressive in pushing affirmative action.
Lott made it clear Lee’s performance will now become a subject of Republican scrutiny. “Senators will very carefully watch the actions of the Justice Department regarding racial quotas, preferences and timetables to ensure that the department complies with all laws and federal court decisions,” he said.
Hatch said Lee would be the “among the most congressionally scrutinized bureaucrats in history.”
Durbin called Lee the right man for the job but said he now fears Republicans in Congress will seek to try to hold back appropriations for the civil rights division as a way of starving it of funds.
Georgetown University presidential scholar Stephen Wayne said despite all the rhetoric, Clinton had accommodated GOP complaints. “He didn’t ram it down their throats,” Wayne said. “He bent a little. That’s Bill Clinton.”
Asian-Americans hailed the appointment, as did Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., one of the Senate’s most liberal members. He called it “disgraceful” that the Senate blocked the nomination. Former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, a member of Clinton’s Advisory Board on Race, said the fight over Lee showed how divided the country is over affirmative action.
To many of Lee’s opponents, putting Lee in the post on an acting basis is even worse than a recess appointment would have been.
“This means Lee can continue in this position for as long as President Clinton is president, rather than being limited to the end of the next session,” said Roger Clegg, general counsel of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity.
If the anti-Lee camp was angered by Clinton’s action, Lee’s supporters were pleased. By naming Lee on an “acting” basis, they noted, the president retained his ability to push for a full Senate vote.
The civil rights division was created in 1957 after President Dwight D. Eisenhower was forced to take over the Arkansas National Guard to enforce the desegregation of public schools in Little Rock.
The division’s 120 lawyers enforce the nation’s civil rights laws, suing violators or reaching settlements. That mission has grown dramatically over the past 40 years, along with the country’s expanding notion of what civil rights mean.
In addition to enforcing fair housing and voting laws, the division also tackles less traditional matters. It enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example. It ensures access to abortion clinics. It guarantees the rights of the mentally disabled in institutions.