In a dramatic development that threatens William Lucas' nomination as the government's chief civil rights enforcer, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) Thursday withdrew his endorsement a day after introducing Lucas to the Senate Judiciary Committee with warm praise.
Conyers told a hushed session of the panel that he was taking the unusual action with "a slightly heavy heart" because of Lucas' hands-off position on recent Supreme Court rulings that civil rights leaders regard as disastrous setbacks.
"I want someone who is deeply disturbed" by the decisions, Conyers said, contending that they had plunged the civil rights movement into a crisis.
Conyers' reversal could provide Lucas' foes with crucial momentum in their struggle against his nomination as assistant attorney general for civil rights. Conyers is an influential black leader in Congress and the Administration had turned to him to introduce Lucas, who also is black, after the nominee's two home state Michigan senators broke with tradition and declined to do so.
In another blow to Lucas' prospects, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr.(D-Del.), who advised civil rights leaders last week that he was inclined to vote for Lucas, told the same officials Thursday at the panel hearing that he is now leaning against confirmation.
Biden cited Lucas' lack of an opinion when he asked him about the Supreme Court rulings, whether the country was moving in the right direction on civil rights and whether the Ronald Reagan Administration had been for or against civil rights.
Despite the setbacks, David Runkel, spokesman for Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh, said: "I still expect Bill Lucas to be confirmed."
Conyers' withdrawal of support--he said he was not asking the committee to vote against recommending Lucas' confirmation--came after he met Thursday morning with Lucas and John Mackey of the Justice Department's office of congressional affairs.
Justice Department officials then discussed with Conyers' staff issuing a joint statement that "they share a commitment to civil rights," but Conyers, after reviewing Lucas' testimony, decided that did not go far enough, sources familiar with the meeting said.
In introducing his longtime friend Wednesday to the Senate committee, Conyers had said he was "convinced Bill Lucas will go to greatness" in the high-level Justice Department post. "If he doesn't, I will be the first one calling for his head on a pike."
But after reviewing a transcript of Lucas' testimony on "the most enormous question facing the civil rights community," which he did not remain in Wednesday's session to hear, Conyers said he "was frankly astounded."
Lucas, echoing comments by Thornburgh, President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle, said he did not view the high court rulings as having substantial impact on civil rights law and promised to monitor them aggressively instead of proposing legislation to counteract the rulings. The rulings narrowed the use of affirmative action and plaintiffs' options in job discrimination complaints.
He contended that the Justice Department's civil rights division believes that the rulings have "a sound basis in law" and that they have not undermined civil rights, an assessment that Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) said he found hard to believe.
"He said he could live with these cases," Conyers told the hearing. "I can't live with these cases."
In predicting that Lucas would win Senate confirmation, Runkel said: "This guy went up there and voiced the views of the Administration. It's unrealistic to think that he would do other than that. If the expectation of some people is that a liberal Democrat is going to be nominated" to the civil rights post, "they're wrong. It ain't going to happen."
Lucas, a former Wayne County, Mich., sheriff and county executive, has also drawn criticism from the NAACP.
In other testimony Thursday, Henry Sanders, president of the Alabama New South Coalition, one of that state's major civil rights groups, said: "I submit to you that if Mr. Lucas was white that there would be no problem in rejecting him. But he's black, and it's civil rights and both of those have a different standard.
"I think it's terrible when you have to deal with a different standard."
Although Conyers' reversal and Biden's comment mark significant setbacks for Lucas, his opponents were cautious in assessing the impact.
"I think it's very close," said Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "He came out of the hearings in much worse shape than he went into them."
In addition to Biden, Sens. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Simon have all seemed concerned by Lucas' testimony. The committee has 14 members, and Lucas went into the hearing backed by five Republicans and one of the panel's eight Democrats, Sen. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona.