December 15, 1997
When President Clinton sent the nomination of Bill Lann Lee to the U.S. Senate to be the Assistant Attorney General for civil rights, it ran into stiff opposition from Senate Republicans. The Senate Judiciary Committee was so split, a confirmation vote was never taken. Now, the President has appointed Lee to the job in an "acting" role. Sens. Larry Craig (R-ID) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) debate Mr. Clinton's move and how it could affect his relationship with the Senate.
JIM LEHRER: Reaction now from two Senators: Dianne Feinstein of California, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee; and Larry Craig of Idaho, chairman of the Republican policy committee.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
November 13, 1997:
Bill Lann Lee's nomination is delayed.
Reassessing our civic symbols .
December 3, 1997:
President Clinton and his race advisory panel hold a town meeting in Akron, Ohio.
November 25, 1997:
Cornel West and the NewsHour historians discuss the debate about renaming schools named after slave owners.
November 5, 1997:
The fight to nominate Bill Lann Lee.
November 3, 1997:
The Supreme Court declines to hear a challenge to California's Proposition 209.
September 30, 1997:
Presidential race advisers discuss Clinton's One America initiative.
The Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook and Angela Oh discuss race relations.
June 16, 1997:
Experts analyze President Clinton's speech on race relations.
May 20, 1997:
Betty Ann Bowser reports on the effects of dropping affirmative action programs in Texas universities.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Race Relations.
The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.
The Department of Justice
Sen. Craig, what do you think of what President Clinton did?
A finger in the eye of the Senate?
SEN. LARRY CRAIG, (R) Idaho: Well, it appears the President is willing now on more than one occasion to stick his eye in the finger of the Senate, and while the President talks about the Constitution, today he denied the Senate what it is constitutionally responsible for doing. Mr. Lee's vote did not come to the floor because the Judiciary Committee, responsible for recommending him to the floor of the Senate, did not do so. When Mr. Lee went before the committee, he had a majority of that committee's votes in a bipartisan vote. But as he talked and as he reflected his philosophy and as the committee found that it was outside the Constitution and was very opinionated, they began to reject it. And finally, he lost the support of that committee. It's awfully important that I say, Jim, that the Senate--Republican and Democrat alike--are for affirmative action. That is not an issue here. This is a big issue of substance. What the committee could not accept was something that Mr. Lee said about preferences and timetables. Because you are of a different race, the courts have already said, the Supreme Court has said, you should not have preference. He disagrees with the Supreme Court.
Now he has become, by action today, the supreme enforcer of civil rights law. It's a very important position. For him to deny the Constitution, or, more importantly, to deny the Supreme Court that interprets the Constitution, is what is at issue here. And, of course, process is also at issue. The President, once again, defies the Senate. He did so in Kyoto. He lost his vote on fast track. And now he objects to what is constitutionally and responsibly the Senate's action. He called it "inaction," but the Senate, in fact, did act. The Judiciary Committee has the right to deny the nomination's presence on the floor, and they so chose to do so. Now, Chairman Hatch has no plans to bring it back, and I believe that the majority leader, Trent Lott, has said that it is not his desire that this issue be voted on the floor because the committee has acted.
A "fitting and proper" action by the President?
JIM LEHRER: All right. Sen. Feinstein, first, do you agree, this is a stick in the eye of the United States Senate?
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, (D) California: No, I don't agree at all. I listened very carefully to the testimony. I was present during Bill Lann Lee's hearing. I respectfully disagree with the characterization that his views are outside of the law. I believe they're very much inside of the law. He, I believe, is qualified by education, by background, to serve in this position. As the President just said, they see alike with respect to these issues. And more fundamentally, just a small part of this position really deals with affirmative action. There are overwhelming and large civil rights responsibilities relating to many other laws, which fall within the jurisdiction of this position. And so I think this is fitting and proper that the President has done this. I listened to my chairman, Senator Hatch, say that if he chose to go this route, which is an assistant--an acting assistant A.G. route -- that it would be much less of concern to the Senate. I take him at his word. After all, in the Senate Judiciary Committee, just one vote away from being approved, and I believe that if this nominee came before the full Senate, he would be approved by a majority of the Senate.
JIM LEHRER: Meantime, Sen. Feinstein, do you agree with the President, with that word "acting" out there, he still will be able to function in a fruitful way as attorney general for civil rights?
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Yes, I do. And I also believe that with the statutes that were used for this appointment, as I understand it, Bill Lann Lee is effectively in the position now for the remainder of the President's term unless the President, himself, sees a change of one vote on the Judiciary Committee, and wishes to pursue in that venue. Otherwise, he--
JIM LEHRER: He stays.
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: --is effectively in the position to get the job done.
Shouldn't the President be allowed to appoint people who support his position on affirmative action?
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Craig, what about--Sen. Feinstein just mentioned it; the President said it as well--if you have a disagreement with Bill Lann Lee's views, you also have a disagreement with the President's views, and, in effect, the President is saying, I have a right to have people work for me who agree with me?
SEN. LARRY CRAIG: Well, if the President and Bill Lann Lee agree, that's certainly to the President's advantage. I'm sure that's why he nominated him. But what the President eliminates from the process is the Constitution. The Constitution says that the Senate has the right of advice and consent and in this instance consent, and they denied the President that consent. So it is a two-track process. The President does not operate alone here. Let me agree with Sen. Feinstein on the qualifications of this individual. That was never challenged, and my guess is it should never be. He is a very bright and talented man by all observation. But he clearly stated--and let me quote the chairman of the Judiciary Committee--saying that Mr. Lee is unwilling to enforce the Constitution of the nation's civil rights laws and, as intended, is denying the interpretation of the courts. Now, that is something that Mr. Lee, himself, does not have the responsibility or right to do, nor does the President. They can disagree, but they cannot deny the law.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Feinstein?
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: May I just clear this up? This came over, I believe, a response to a question on the Adarand Case, and so on the final day of the executive meeting of the Judiciary Committee. I asked Mr. Lee if he would clarify his position on Adarand, and he wrote a letter and he clarified it.
JIM LEHRER: Tell us about the Adarand case quickly, and then before--
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Well, the Adarand case essentially says that with respect to all governmental affirmative action there has to be very strict scrutiny applied, and that unless there is a compelling government interest, the government can't interfere in this area. So there's strict scrutiny and a compelling governmental interest. And Mr. Lee essentially affirmed that, said he would abide by it, and I felt cleared up any misimpression that he might have given to some at the hearing. I think what I've seen in all of the discussions on this--and there's been considerable discussion before the Judiciary Committee--it's been kind of a sliding slope. It's been a number of things. Some of it has been, I have felt--this is just my view as an individual Senator--well, we'll get back for what happened to Mr. Lucas or Mr. Reynolds. I wasn't around then.
JIM LEHRER: They were two--
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I don't carry these grudges.
JIM LEHRER: Those were two prior nominees of Republican presidents to Democratic Congresses, and they didn't make it.
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: And then when this shifted and after the hearing, then we came up with this one answer on Adarand. And now that that is corrected it's going to be something else. But the bottom line is that this is a sound human being. He is skilled in his profession. He knows the law, and with Adarand and the strict scrutiny and compelling government interest, I would think that no case will be brought that isn't signed off on by the attorney general, herself, and with the permission of the White House. So whatever he does is going to be under its own strict scrutiny.
The political consequences of the President's decision.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Craig, just back to the practical issue here, Sen. Feinstein said that your arguments, other people's arguments about the advise and consent of the Senate aside, that this man is going to have this job as long as the President wants him to have it. Do you agree with that? And under this process that was used today, that's what's going to happen?
SEN. LARRY CRAIG: Oh, I certainly can agree with that, if the President wants to continue to make him an acting director in this area or assistant attorney general in this area. Jim, what I think is at issue here is that the President constantly attempts to deny or circumvent the Senate. This is a lame duck president who will have to continue to come to Congress to get more and more of what he would like. My guess is at this rate he will get less and less because he has denied what is the constitutional responsibility and right of the Senate. This is an issue of substance. Now, I am not on the Judiciary Committee, so Sen. Feinstein has one up on me. But I've certainly discussed this at length with the chairman. I have quoted the chairman of the Judiciary's letter. I believe that to be a statement of fact on his part, and I think that's the issue here. The President acted today as he is entitled to act. The consequences, I'm sure, will come on many issues later.
JIM LEHRER: What kind of consequences, Sen. Craig?
SEN. LARRY CRAIG: There's no team of Senators sitting around at this moment, Jim, saying, we're going to get him on this we're going to get him on that. But if you look at it, on a 95-0 vote on global warming, the Senate advised and yet the President and the Vice President turned and walked away from it. The Senate has advised once again, under the Constitutional right of the Senate, on the issue of Bill Lann Lee and once again the President has ignored it. That will ultimately have to have some consequences.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see consequences coming, Sen. Feinstein?
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Well, the only place I would see the consequences in, you know, further slowdown of appointments, in their confirmation, but that's already been the case.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I mean, the 9th Circuit, we've all seen what's happened there. And so I don't see anything any different. With respect to the global warming treaty, the President has clearly said it's not going to come to the Senate until this condition is met.
JIM LEHRER: We are not going to argue global warming tonight.
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Good.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
SEN. LARRY CRAIG: Jim, thank you.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.
SEN. LARRY CRAIG: Happy holidays.
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Happy holidays.