Senate Republicans are threatening to defeat President Clinton’s choice for the administration’s top civil rights post because he supports affirmative action programs.
The White House is fighting to salvage the nomination of Asian-American attorney Bill Lann Lee after Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, announced his opposition Tuesday.
Hatch said he will vote against Lee because Lee opposes Proposition 209, the California initiative that bars using race or gender as criteria in state hiring, contracting and college admissions. Clinton also opposes the California measure.
“Unfortunately, much of Mr. Lee’s work has been devoted to preserving constitutionally suspect race-conscious public policies that ultimately sort and divide citizens by race,” Hatch said.
After the senator’s announcement, Clinton reiterated his support for Lee, who he said is “superbly qualified” for the Justice Department job of assistant attorney general for civil rights.
“How can anybody in good conscience vote against him if they believe that our civil rights laws ought to be enforced?” Clinton said in the Rose Garden. “That is the question that we will be pressing to every senator without regard to party.”
Hatch’s committee is expected to consider Lee’s nomination Thursday.
Lee needs at least 10 votes for his nomination to be approved by the committee and sent to the Senate floor. Lee is expected to have the support of the commmittee’s eight Democrats. But Hatch could sway the other nine Republicans.
Myron Marlin, a Justice Department spokesman, said Hatch’s opposition is unfortunate.
“But we’re still hopeful we can get the votes to make Bill Lee this nation’s first Asian-American to head the Civil Rights Division,” Marlin said. “We are 100 percent committed to this nomination.”
The assistant attorney general in the civil rights post, which has been vacant since early this year, enforces the nation’s laws against discrimination in areas such as education, housing, employment and banking.
The position has been a lightning rod for controversy since 1981, when President Reagan’s nominees were opposed by civil rights groups. In 1993, conservatives attacked Clinton’s nominee for the job, law professor Lani Guinier, as a “quota queen,” and Clinton withdrew her nomination before a hearing was conducted.
Just two weeks ago, the 48-year-old Lee, who lives in Los Angeles, received a warm reception from the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee.
Lee has spent his career as a civil rights litigator and most recently was Western regional director for the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an organization opposed by many Republicans and conservatives for its strong backing of affirmative action.
Lee has received support from Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican.
Born in Harlem as the son of Chinese immigrants, Lee has an up-by-the-bootstraps life story. His father was a laundryman who had come to this country as a penniless immigrant. Lee eventually graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in New York and attended Yale University, graduating magna cum laude in 1971, and graduated from Columbia University Law School in 1974.
Lee is considered a consensus builder who has fought hard for his clients’ interests.
Hatch has raised questions about Lee’s views on racial preferences and has questioned Lee’s role in a case challenging the hiring practices of the Los Angeles Police Department. The senator also has expressed concern about Lee’s opposition to Proposition 209, which the Supreme Court left in place Monday by declining to hear a legal challenge against it.
“The case against Bill Lee is broader and more fundamental than his aggressive support for public policies that sort and divide by race,” Hatch said. “What Bill Lee’s record fundamentally suggests is a willingness to read the civil rights laws so narrowly … as to undermine their very spirit, if not their letter.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THE JOB The assistant attorney general for civil rights enforces the nation’s laws against discrimination in areas such as education, housing, employment and banking.