Washington — Opponents appear to have little chance of defeating President Reagan's nominee to head the Human Rights Bureau at the State Department. But organizers of the campaign against Ernest W. Lefever, the assistant secretary of state-designate, say they do hope to produce a large enough vote against him to "send a signal" to the Reagan administration.
Some also say they want to use the controversial Lefever appointment as a unifying issue with which to rally liberals. At the May 18 opening of two full days of Senate hearings on his appointment, Mr. Lefever was subjected to hard questioning by several senators. The critics think that thorough questioning may weaken Lefever's position in the bureaucracy, if not discredit him. In other words, the aim of some of the critics seems to be both to wound and to warn.
As president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), a Washington "think tank," Lefever had criticized President Carter for putting pressure for democratic reforms on the authoritarian rulers of Iran, Nicaragua, and South Korea. In his view, rulers such as these could be "nudged" toward humaneness through quiet diplomacy but were less deserving of American condemnation than were the regimes of most communist states.
Most controversial, in the view of some critics, was Lefever's past assertion that South Africa should be a "full-fledged partner" of the United States in the "struggle against communist expansion."
Several of the senators' opening questions to Lefever dealt with rumors that the EPPC had received South African donations. He denied the center had received any such donations, either directly or indirectly. But in answer to additional questioning, he said that under legal advice he was refusing to turn over to the Senate records of donations made between 1976 and 1979. This, he said, was necessary to protect the privacy of the donors.
Speaking before a crowd that allowed for standing room only, Lefever backed away from his earlier call for removal from the statute books of all clauses that establish a human rights standard or condition that must be met by another government before the US can transact normal business with it. He said he had "goofed" in making such a flat statement. He declared he would observe the laws. But he said he also thought the laws should be reviewed and "amended" if necessary.
In his opening statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Lefever declared, "We must recognize that there are moral and political limits to what the United States government can and should do to modify the internal behavior of another sovereign state."
He said there were four ways in which the US could "advance the cause of freedom and dignity." These were: by remaining a "living example" to the world; by standing by allies and friends when their survival is jeopardized by external pressures or subversion; by using quiet diplomacy, and by public condemnation of those who perpetrate gross violations of human rights.
But some senators think Lefever has, in the words of Alan Cranston (D) of California, "promoted a diminised, muted role for human rights in the world."
William Goodfellow of the Center for International Policy, a liberal "think tank" project of the Fund for Peace, said the Lefever confirmation hearings had stirred liberals as no issue had since the Vietnam war years.
"Lefever is a rallying point," he said.
Mr. Goodfellow said the model for the liberal strategy against Lefever was taken in part from conservatives and the 1977 Senate vote of confirmation for President Carter's choice of Paul C. Warnke as the chief US arms control negotiator with the Soviets. In that case, it was the Senate conservatives who were "sending signals." The liberal Mr. Warnke was confirmed in his appointment, but it was a tough fight. In the view of some senators, the 40 votes cast against the armscontrol nominee amounted to a signal telling both Mr. Carter and the Soviet Union, "We're watching you."
(Carter, speaking in New York May 18, counseled against the US withholding criticism of other countries for human rights violations. Without mentioning the Reagan administration, he said, "Human rights issues are not just ephemeral or parochial affairs." Support of human rights, he added, was "a strong weapon in our continuing competition with Soviet ideology.")
Some people think the strong opposition to Warnke in the Senate kept him on the defensive until the time of his resignation.
Lefever has become a symbol of "neoconservatism" for many liberals, much as Warnke became a symbol for Senate conservatives who were anxious about growing Soviet military strength and Warnke's alleged "softness" toward the Soviets.