The White House signaled Friday it is prepared to use a rarely exercised presidential power to install Bill Lann Lee as the nation’s chief civil rights enforcer even without a vote by the Senate, where Republicans have blocked his confirmation.
With Congress now in recess, Clinton can give Lee an interim appointment as assistant attorney general that would keep him in office for nearly two years despite GOP opposition. Clinton has been loath to make such recess appointments in the past lest he antagonize senators who fiercely guard their prerogatives, but officials said Lee may be worth an exception.
“This is a matter that the president believes in strongly,” said White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles. “He has supported the principle of civil rights his entire career. Bill Lann Lee is somebody who is qualified (and) who deserves to be assistant attorney general for civil rights.”
Bowles called the treatment of Lee “disgraceful” and hinted that a recess appointment was in the works during a news conference Friday. “We believe this man deserves a vote, but I assure you he will be the next assistant attorney general for civil rights,” he said. Asked if he was worried about congressional retaliation against a recess appointment, Bowles answered flatly, “No.”
The unequivocal statement was the strongest suggestion to date that Clinton would circumvent the objections of Republicans who believe that Lee has been too radical in his support for affirmative action and racial preferences in contrast to recent court rulings restricting such programs. Publicly, other White House aides were not willing to say that Clinton had decided to make a recess appointment, but privately they did not discourage that interpretation from Bowles’s remarks.
“You could say we were leaning forward, but we haven’t pulled the trigger yet,” said one official.
All but one Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee planned to vote against Lee last Thursday, effectively dooming his nomination, but Democrats prevented a formal vote in hopes of resuming the fight next year.