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Clinton to Seek Senate Consultations on Justice Nominee : Civil rights: The White House continues to show doubts about Lani Guinier. Her backers pressure Administration to stand by her.

June 03, 1993|DAVID LAUTER and SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — President Clinton said Wednesday that he needs to "talk to some of the senators" about the nomination of C. Lani Guinier before deciding whether to go ahead with the controversial choice to head the Justice Department's civil rights division.

Clinton's statement came as the White House continued to signal doubts about Guinier. White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos repeatedly declined to guarantee that Clinton would press ahead with the nomination.

"That's up to the Senate," he said. "Clearly, there are serious reservations."

Sources close to Guinier, however, said that the nominee intends to press ahead despite White House concerns, even at the price of creating an embarrassing confrontation for Clinton.

"She is not going to just walk into the night quietly," said one close associate of Guinier's. Backers of the nomination have begun rallying prominent supporters in the civil rights community to put pressure on the Administration to stand by Guinier and reinforce the message that Clinton would pay a political price for abandoning her.

The controversy over Guinier, 43, centers on a series of law review articles that the University of Pennsylvania law professor has written discussing ways of guaranteeing political power for members of minority groups through the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. In those articles, she has questioned whether majority rule in a race-conscious society can ever be truly fair to minorities and has made other statements that opponents have said amount to advocacy of racial separatism.

Faced with conflicting pressures, Clinton issued a remarkably equivocal statement Wednesday.

"A lot of the attacks (on Guinier) cannot be supported by a fair reading of the writings," Clinton said. "And that's not to say that I agree with everything in the writings; I don't. But I think that a lot of what has been said is not accurate.

"On the other hand, I have to take into account where the Senate is and I will be doing that and talking to them. I think until I do that, I should have nothing else to say," he said at a White House photo session.

In the meantime, Clinton authorized Stephanopoulos to say that the President had recently read summaries of some of Guinier's writings--White House officials say he had not read the writings before choosing her--and had "some concerns" about some of them. Stephanopoulos would not specify which statements he had in mind.

At the same time, however, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno reaffirmed her support for Guinier, saying through a spokesman that she still believes Guinier to be an excellent choice.

Guinier and her backers, however, have said that they strongly believe her views have been distorted. They also fault the White House for having failed to make a case for her while, simultaneously, preventing her from making the case herself.

"Her story has not been told," said a leading advocate of Guinier's nomination, who discussed the matter with her earlier this week. Dropping the nomination without allowing her to defend herself "would be a grave injustice," he said.

In keeping with the usual custom, White House officials have directed Guinier not to give any on-the-record statements to the press before her confirmation hearings, although the nominee in the last few days has been freed to do a series of off-the-record conversations with newspaper editorial boards, reporters and prominent columnists.

Ultimately, if Clinton does stick with the nomination, the Senate will have to judge who is right about Guinier's writings. Both publicly and in private, many Senate Democrats have indicated to the White House that they would prefer not to have to vote on Guinier. If they do have to vote, many have warned Clinton aides, the nomination likely would be defeated.

But supporters of Guinier argue that those statements should be discounted.

"There's no question there are some senators who would prefer not to have to vote on a controversial subject," said Ralph Neas of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "They always would prefer to avoid such votes. But if they have to vote, I'm convinced they would do the right thing and Lani Guinier would be confirmed."

Supporters of Guinier hope that if they can keep the nomination alive until it gets to the Senate, she will be able to squeak by. After considerable delay, they have begun publicly pressuring the Administration to stand by her.

"Let's be fair," Jesse Jackson thundered at a news conference called by Guinier supporters Wednesday morning. "She deserves a fair hearing before the Senate."

Jackson said that he received assurances from White House Chief of Staff Thomas (Mack) McLarty on Tuesday night that Clinton still supports Guinier.

Drawing an analogy to past civil rights battles, Guinier's supporters said those who have opposed her nomination have also opposed other expansions of black rights. Some of the leaders hinted that they would hold Clinton responsible if he backs off earlier promises to support Guinier.

Forcing Guinier to withdraw would cast doubts on the President's integrity, said U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Mary Francis Berry.

"If for some political reasons he decided to back away, then it would raise serious questions about Bill Clinton's character. What kind of person fails to support his nominee? Can other people count on Bill Clinton to support them when times get tough?"

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