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Democrats Block Committee Vote On Clinton Civil Rights Nominee

By Ronald J. Ostrow
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

Facing certain defeat, Democrats on Thursday blocked a Senate Judiciary Committee vote on the nomination of Los Angeles lawyer Bill Lann Lee as the United States' civil rights chief, leaving it up to President Clinton to decide whether to renominate him next year.

With only Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., breaking ranks, the committee's nine other Republicans said they would have rejected Lee. And they opposed even sending his name without recommendation for a full Senate vote, as Democrats had urged.

With the eight Democrats and Specter supporting Lee, this would have produced tie votes, which lose under committee rules.

The two-hour committee meeting on the Senate's last scheduled session of the year was marked by drama, with Specter warning that defeating the first Asian American nominated for the Justice Department post "will make it harder for us to elect a Republican president in the year 2000."

But committee chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, whose recent decision to oppose Lee was the crucial blow for the nomination, declared: "We're tired of preferring one group over another, of preferring groups over individuals."

Hatch based his opposition to Lee on the nominee's support of affirmative action in general and Lee's specific criticism of California's Proposition 209, which prohibits such programs at the state and local level.

During the hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., pleaded with her GOP colleagues on the panel to at least support a move to send Lee's nomination to the full Senate for a vote.

"I think this nomination is really a big deal, because if Bill Lann Lee can't be confirmed for this post, I don't really believe that anyone can be confirmed who believes that there are civil rights injustices still being done in this country," Feinstein said.