President Clinton's determination to appoint Bill Lann Lee to the nation's top civil rights post - risking the wrath of Congress - has been amplified to a symbolic roar in the struggle over race and affirmative action in America.
As early as today, Mr. Clinton is expected to announce that the California NAACP lawyer will take the job of assistant attorney general for civil rights.
A leading opponent of the appointment, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said on television Sunday that Mr. Lee's record and statements on race and gender preferences indicate that he is "unwilling to commit to enforcing the law as written."
But Clinton seems intent on pushing ahead with Lee, in part as a way to forge new loyalty within the left wing of the Democratic Party and among ethnic groups. Lee would be the highest-ranking Asian-American in the Clinton administration. Generally conservative leaning, the Asian-American vote has become increasingly significant. Clinton's championing of Lee could erode recent Republican gains within the ethnic bloc.
"This is key for Clinton's support on the left," says political scientist Stephen Schier of Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
How Clinton makes the appointment may be pivotal as to whether the furor over Lee continues. The president may avoid a confrontation with the Senate by making Lee "acting" head of the Justice Department division. But if Clinton makes an end-run "recess" appointment - one made while Congress is away on vacation - Senator Hatch says the Senate would consider that affront "a finger in the eye."
The practical effect of thwarting the Senate's will is an expected frosting of bipartisanship, lethargy on spending bills, and the freezing of Clinton's judicial nominees.
Hatch and others argue Lee would advocate affirmative action as a method of countering discrimination in the workplace despite Lee's assurances to the contrary.
Adding to the sting for Republicans is the divisive racial subtext employed by Lee's supporters, including the White House say observers, in the attempt to force a vote on Lee in the Senate.
"The administration has been trying to put across a subtle message that racism is involved here," says Mr. Schier. "The symbolism makes Republicans look like they are closing the door on a qualified Asian-American."
It also runs counter to the White House's effort to create a dialogue on race to promote harmony and heal racial rifts. White House officials and Democrats refuse the notion they are employing racially divisive tactics. "Has there been race baiting? I haven't seen it," says Democratic National Committee co-chairman Roy Romer.
BUT Democrats are aware of the impact the issue has on the Republican Party, particularly among some ethnic groups. "The Republicans ought to think about what they are doing to themselves. It is a very narrow, hard, conservative point of view," said White House spokesman Mike McCurry last week. "They alienate a very large group of Americans with very diverse backgrounds," he believes.
"I can't believe how many times they [White House officials] have flogged this thing," observes Schier.
Last week, the White House mounted a several-pronged campaign for Lee, including appearances by him at one Washington venue after another. The president also issued a statement from the White House, then hammered Republicans for their opposition while he was in New York and Florida
"The supporters of Lee, have played the race card," claims Roger Clegg at The Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank. Many Republicans and Democrats argue that opposition to Lee, based on his views on affirmative action, should not a racist make. "You have Jesse Jackson saying a vote against Lee is a hate crime... what else could it be than playing the race card?" Mr. Clegg argues.