Vote Delayed On Nominee For Rights Post Bill Lann Lee's Supporters Will Push For Judiciary Committee Votes. They Need Two Republicans.

Posted: November 07, 1997

WASHINGTON — After a tense and sometimes emotional debate over affirmative action, the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday postponed voting on President Clinton's nominee for the Justice Department's top civil rights position.

The committee had been expected to reject the nomination of Asian American attorney Bill Lann Lee to be the nation's top civil rights enforcer because of his support for affirmative action. But the panel postponed action for a week at the request of Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the panel's top Democrat.

The committee is scheduled to vote on Lee's nomination Thursday. Lee's supporters - which range from Asian American groups to the NAACP - said they would use the extra time to lobby key senators.

Later in the committee's session, Leahy was on the verge of tears as he described his father's experience with discrimination years ago. As a teenager, Leahy's father had to support his family after his father, a Vermont stonecutter, died.

``At that time, he was faced with signs which said, `No Irish need apply' or `No Catholics need apply,' '' Leahy said, pausing occasionally. ``At that time, there was not a civil rights law. There was not a Bill Lann Lee or anybody else willing to enforce a civil rights law. Had there been, my father's life would have been a lot different. I do not want to see us backtrack on our civil rights laws.''

Said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Fund for a Feminist Majority: ``The Republican Party is risking building the gender gap into a gender canyon. . . . This is another attempt to drive women and minorities back.''

Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R., Utah) reiterated his opposition to Lee, who has spent his career as a civil rights litigator and most recently was the Western regional director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, an organization opposed by many conservatives for its backing of affirmative action.

Hatch also opposes Lee because of the nominee's opposition to Proposition 209, the California initiative that bars using racial or gender criteria in state hiring, contracting or college admission. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to the ban.

``. . . His record reflects that he is also an activist lawyer who has demonstrated a distorted view of the Constitution and the nation's civil rights laws,'' Hatch said. ``. . . I cannot support a nominee whose record, combined with his testimony, demonstrate a decided reluctance to enforce the law as intended.''

Democrats say that the Republicans are gunning for Lee because they oppose President Clinton's affirmative-action policies. ``The party of Lincoln should not be a party to this sneak attack on civil rights,'' said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D., Mass.).

Hatch said that if the committee voted on Lee's nomination yesterday, it would have been defeated. Lee has the support of the eight committee Democrats. He needs at least two of the 10 Republicans.

Supporters have cited Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Fred Thompson of Tennessee and Spencer Abraham of Michigan as potential backers they will lobby. DeWine's office says he opposes the nomination.

The post of assistant attorney general for civil rights, which has been vacant since early this year, is the nation's chief enforcer of civil rights laws barring discrimination in such areas as housing, education and banking.

The position has been a lightning rod for years. In 1993, conservatives attacked Clinton's first nominee for the job, law professor Lani Guinier, as a ``quota queen,'' and Clinton withdrew her nomination before a hearing was conducted.

Two weeks ago, Lee received a warm reception from the committee. And yesterday, many members cited his inspiring up-by-the-bootstraps story as commitment to civil rights. Born in Harlem, Lee was the son of Chinese immigrants. His father came to this country as a penniless immigrant and ran a small laundry. But he would not teach young Bill how to iron because he did not want his son to follow in his footsteps.

Eventually, Lee graduated with honors from Yale University and Columbia University Law School and became a civil rights lawyer because he believed every person deserves ``an equal opportunity to work, to learn and to live.'' He earned a reputation as a consensus-builder who tried to resolve cases through settlements, not courtroom confrontations.

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