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Angry Clinton on verge of recess appointment

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President Clinton, angered to the point of pounding on desks and ranting over his executive and judicial nominations dying in the Republican-controlled Senate, is on the verge of a dramatic recess appointment of one of his embattled nominees.

Administration sources say Clinton is prepared to risk a rupture in his relations with the Senate and appoint Bill Lann Lee as assistant attorney general for civil rights as early as this week.Clinton's senior congressional lobbyist, John Hilley, privately told ranking aides on the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that there was "a 90 percent" chance that Clinton would make a recess appointment, according to an official familiar with the discussion. Such an appointment, made while Congress is out of session, would allow Lee to serve in the post without Senate confirmation until January 1999.

Several senior White House officials said in interviews that the appointment may be made anytime after Clinton hosts an open forum on race issues in Akron, Ohio, Wednesday. The current maneuvering follows a blunt statement from White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles in mid-November, when he said, "I assure you (Lee) will be the next assistant attorney general for civil rights."

A recess appointment would mark an extraordinarily confrontational decision for a president who vowed earlier this year to seek a "vital center" with congressional Republicans from which to govern, and who has consistently compromised with Republicans on issues ranging from welfare reform to pollution emissions.

Clinton last considered a recess appointment when former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld's bid to become ambassador to Mexico was blocked by North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, who thought Weld soft on drugs. But the president backed off when Helms and the Republican leadership signaled that such a move could devastate the relationship between the White House and the Senate.

For the president, the case of Bill Lann Lee is a world apart from Weld's. Clinton is now apparently prepared to risk the wrath of Senate leaders because he views the fight over Lee as tantamount to a fight over the future of civil rights enforcement. And Lee is being blocked because his views in favor of affirmative action are aligned with the president's.

Inside the White House, aides said Clinton's frustration has boiled over because there has been a string of nominations held up for similarly partisan reasons. Among them: David Satcher, the nominee for surgeon general, for his views supporting abortion rights; and James Hormel, Clinton's choice as envoy to Luxembourg and the first openly gay ambassadorial nomi-nee.

In addition, Clinton has had a dismal record of winning confirmation for his federal judicial nominees in the committee controlled by Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. Of the 80 judicial nominations made this year, only 36 won confirmation by the time Congress recessed earlier this month, causing some longtime Washington observers to quip that the traditional Senate role of advise and consent is now "advice and cement."

What is most worrisome to aides in the White House is that, while the Senate has often given presidents difficulties over nominees in the past, this Republican Senate appears to be opposing nominees not because of their qualifications, but because of opinions which usually coincide with administration policy.

"There is enormous concern here," said Paul Begala, a counselor to Clinton. "This goes to the president's ability to run the country, to carry out the mandate the voters gave him. It is very difficult. Do you want to surrender your entire legislative agenda to pick a fight with people who have to pass your whole program?"

Added Ann Lewis, the White House communications director: "We have a serious problem that is getting worse, not better."

Conservative Republicans have argued that Clinton's judicial nominees are far too liberal and activist, and some family values groups have built entire fund-raising drives around their vow to block Clinton from stacking the federal bench with left-leaning jurists.

Other, more moderate Republicans argue that this season of unusual conflict over nominees, which began with the defeat of Weld, represents payback from the time when a Democrat Senate defeated the nominations of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court under President Ronald Reagan and John Tower as secretary of defense under President George Bush.

"This is the natural result of a progression that was initiated during the Reagan and Bush administrations," said Ed Gillespie, a Republican strategist.

Analysts said this spate of derailed nominations appears especially harsh, partly for the sheer number of them, and partly for the reasons Republicans give for their opposition.

"My view is the president should get the choices for the jobs in his administration, unless there are ethical or moral reasons, like the nominee lied to the Congress or has a criminal record," said Stephen Hess a presidential scholar with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Within the White House, there is virtual unanimity among Clinton aides over making a recess appointment for Lee, a longtime NAACP lawyer in Los Angeles and the son of a Chinese immigrant who owned a laundry shop in Harlem.

The act, aides acknowledge, would be regarded as hostile and inflammatory in the Republican-controlled Senate, especially so because it would be primarily aimed at the Judiciary Committee, where the White House is still hoping to gain cooperation on judicial nominations. If another seat on the Supreme Court opens up during Clinton's second term, any nominee would have to clear Hatch's committee.

"If you have to pick a fight, there couldn't be a worse committee," said Hess.