WASHINGTON — On the eve of a crucial vote on Los Angeles lawyer Bill Lann Lee's beleaguered nomination as the nation's chief civil rights enforcer, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and Asian American groups stepped up their campaign on his behalf, with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) ranking it as this year's "No. 1 civil rights issue."
But with head counts showing that Lee's nomination could be blocked by the Senate Judiciary Committee, supporters considered strategies for getting the nomination before the full Senate for a vote.
Justice Department officials say they believe a majority of senators would support him, though parliamentary maneuvers still could prevent action by the full chamber.
Opposition to Lee by committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), centering on the nominee's support of affirmative action, seemed to discourage Republicans on the panel from breaking ranks. As a result, the support of Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania--the one Republican counted on by the Clinton administration to vote for Lee--seemed in question. As of late Wednesday, Specter had not declared his position. Asian American groups expressed their outrage that Lee, who would be the first Asian American to head the civil rights division, could be turned down by the Senate panel in large part because of the affirmative action issue.
"I find it truly incomprehensible that the Senate might reject this man solely because he stands firm on the principle of justice and equality," said Rep. Patsy T. Mink (D-Hawaii), who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, at a Capitol Hill press conference.
With Lee standing at her side at a Justice Department press conference, Reno declared: "We need Bill Lee's leadership at the civil rights division to carry on the fight for Americans who just want an equal chance at the American dream. . . . Make no mistake: This nomination matters for this nation."
Lee, 48, is on leave as western regional counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Referring to criticism of Lee for his opposition to California's Proposition 209, which bans affirmative action in state and local programs, Reno said: "The Constitution's framers simply did not envision a process where the Senate would only confirm nominees who denounce the views of the president who nominates them." Clinton opposed Proposition 209 during the 1996 campaign and has supported efforts to overturn it.
Lee, following what Justice Department officials maintained was standard procedure for a nominee, took no questions and made no comments.
Asked whether Lee's own racial heritage as the son of Chinese immigrants contributed to the opposition, Reno said: "I hope with all my heart and soul that that is not true. I would not like to believe that it is." California's two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, expressed their support of Lee at a press conference with Kennedy, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.)
Feinstein, who has served on the Judiciary Committee since 1993, said she has seen an "evolution of a mean edge of partisanship" on the panel. She called the opposition to Lee "wrong . . . mean . . . and hyperpartisanship."
"Who do they think the president will put up?" Boxer asked. "Someone who doesn't believe in civil rights, someone who doesn't believe in equal rights?"
Despite the bleak prospects of winning committee approval, a Justice Department official described Lee's backers as "hopeful" and said he is "pretty confident" the nominee has support in the "low-to-mid-50s" in the 100-member Senate.
Although that would achieve the majority needed to confirm Lee, the official noted that opponents could filibuster the nomination. Breaking such a parliamentary tactic requires 60 votes.
Kennedy, who chaired the Judiciary panel when Democrats controlled the Senate, said there are ways to submit the nomination to the full chamber without committee approval. But he declined to be specific.
Precedents include that of the 1991 nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, on which the panel split 7-7 but voted to send the issue to the Senate without recommendation, resulting in Thomas' eventual confirmation. A few years before that, the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork was rejected by the full Senate after the committee voted not to recommend him.
But Republican aides said those and other similar instances applied only to lifetime judicial nominations, not executive-branch appointments.
Administration officials expressed hope that Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), a member of the committee, would support Lee. But his spokesman said the senator would vote against him and would oppose sending his nomination to the full Senate. The spokesman noted that Democrats on the panel had failed to support Bill Lucas, a nominee to head the civil rights division from Michigan during the George Bush administration.