On the eve of a crucial vote on Los Angeles lawyer Bill Lann Lee's nomination as the nation's chief civil-rights enforcer, Attorney General Janet Reno and Asian-American groups stepped up their campaign on his behalf.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., called Lee's nomination this year's "No. 1 civil-rights issue."
But with headcounts showing that it could be blocked by the Senate Judiciary Committee, supporters weighed steps to let the full Senate vote on the nominee.
Justice Department officials say they think a majority of senators would support him in such a vote, though parliamentary maneuvers could still prevent action by the full chamber.
Opposition to Lee by committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah _ centering on the nominee's support of affirmative action _ seemed to discourage Republicans' on the panel from breaking ranks. As a result, the lone Republican counted on by the Clinton administration to vote for Lee, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, seemed in question.
As of late Wednesday, Specter had not declared his position.
Asian-American groups expressed their outrage that Lee, who would be the first Asian-American to head the civil rights division, could be turned down by the Senate panel in large part because of the affirmative action issue.
"I find it truly incomprehensible that the Senate might reject this man solely because he stands firm on the principle of justice and equality," Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawaii, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, told a Capitol Hill news conference.
With Lee standing at her side at a Justice Department news conference, Reno declared: "We need Bill Lee's leadership at the civil rights division to carry on the fight for Americans who just want an equal chance at the American dream. . . . Make no mistake: This nomination matters for this nation."
Lee, 48, is on leave as western regional counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Lee took no questions and made no comments.