WASHINGTON -- President Bush named Deputy Attorney General William P. Barr as his next attorney general yesterday, passing over several high-profile political appointees in favor of a conservative government lawyer who seems unlikely to touch off the kind of controversy that has dogged the president's last two nominations.
Mr. Barr, 41, has been acting attorney general for the two months since Richard L. Thornburgh stepped down from the post to run for the Senate in Pennsylvania. Mr. Bush had been under pressure to fill the post permanently, since it is difficult for an acting attorney general to exert control over the FBI and the Justice Department's other agencies.
Time was also running out if Mr. Bush hoped to have a new attorney general confirmed by year's end. But he held open the post while he struggled with the Senate over the nominations of Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and Robert M. Gates as CIA director. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is to vote on Mr. Gates tomorrow.
Mr. Barr was named to the Justice Department's No. 2 post in May 1990 after the resignation of Donald B. Ayer. Mr. Ayer left with a blast of criticism at Mr. Thornburgh for his handling of unauthorized disclosures that were damaging to a potential political rival of the attorney general's, William H. Gray III, D-Pa., who was then the House majority whip.
At the time, career officials at the department were dissatisfied with Mr. Thornburgh because of his reliance on a close circle of political aides who had been on his staff when he was governor of Pennsylvania.
Mr. Barr shares Mr. Bush's strong beliefs that Congress should not impinge on executive privileges and is a member both of the cadre of young officials who rose during the Reagan administration and of the group of conservative lawyers that includes C. Boyden Gray, White House counsel.
He has been actively promoting the administration's anti-crime bill on Capitol Hill, including its provisions for expanding the death penalty and for making it possible to use some improperly obtained evidence in drug cases. His views on issues such as the job discrimination bill now before Congress or on abortion are not clearly known.
Mr. Bush's surprise announcement -- Mr. Barr did not know until he arrived at the White House that the president had chosen him and that he was to announce it yesterday -- came less than 18 hours after the Senate confirmed Mr. Thomas, and it was clearly an attempt by the White House to move beyond that searing fight and onto other issues.
The president also vowed yesterday to push for a changes in the Senate's confirmation process, saying: "There's general agreement around the country and certainly in the Senate that the present process is not fair."
Mr. Bush said he would present his ideas on changing the process soon. "I owe the people my observations and more importantly some suggestions to improve the process," Mr. Bush said.
Everything about yesterday's nomination announcement seemed to underscore Mr. Bush's interest in minimizing media exposure in the short run and avoiding another confirmation VTC
Mr. Bush usually brings his appointees into the White House briefing room, where he introduces them and both take questions, but yesterday officials said Mr. Bush was eager not to rehash the Thomas fight.
The selection of Mr. Barr, in itself, was a clear attempt to avoid trouble as well to reward a loyal and competent official.
The nominee, who has drawn good reviews during his tenure at the Justice Department, has strong conservative credentials.
Like the selection of Mr. Gates as spymaster, the selection of Mr. Barr represented a deliberate choice of a career civil servant.
While a prominent politician can help a president with his constituency, selecting a professional without any apparent ambitions to hold elective office is generally a safer choice for a Cabinet post during difficult times between the chief executive and Congress.