It looks like President Bush is getting hoist by his own political petard. After months of falsely describing the civil rights bill of 1990 as a "quota bill," he is now having to choose between alienating black and women voters by vetoing it or alienating conservative business interests, his political base, by not vetoing it.

Timing is everything in politics, and the Republicans don't look very good less than three weeks before the congressional elections. They, like the Democratic incumbents, have egg all over them because of the budget impasse and the threats of having the government shut down -- not a situation that breeds voter confidence. The Republicans are further imperiled, however, by what is euphemistically being called an "economic downturn" and by the savings and loan scandals that grew out of the Reagan era of deregulation.

The Republican policies of the '80s are hitting with gale force two years into the Bush administration. This congressional election is the first chance voters have to react to what is happening to them. Hardly an ideal time for Bush to become only the third president -- after such luminaries as Andrew Johnson and Ronald Reagan -- to veto a civil rights bill.

The legislation has been passed by both houses in Congress, but not by large enough margins to override a veto. So if Bush vetoes the legislation, he will be stuck with the consequences and so will the Republican Party.

Unlike the budget and the savings and loan catastrophies, there is nothing complicated about the Civil Rights Act. The act restores six laws overturned by the Supreme Court in 1989 when it gutted legislation developed over 20 years by Congress to stop job discrimination against blacks, women and other less-advantaged groups. Employers did not have to fill quotas during those 20 years. To say the act restoring the status quo is a "quota" measure is as much of a fabrication as Bush's promise not to raise taxes.

The Civil Rights Act of 1990, in fact, specifically states it does not require or encourage quotas.

The one significant new provision of the act is that it would allow victims of job discrimination that is based on sex, national origin or religion to collect compensatory and, in extreme cases, punitive damages. Currently, only victims of race discrimination can collect such damages.

The Women's Legal Defense Fund cites the example of Helen Brooms to make the case for other damages. Brooms, an African American industrial nurse, was the victim of discrimination that included being shown pictures of black women performing acts of bestiality. The harassment culminated in an incident in which her supervisor showed her a picture, grabbed her arm and threatened to kill her. She ran and fell down a flight of stairs. She quit her job. She was unable to work regularly for several years and underwent therapy for severe depression. She sued and received back pay, but she was unable to collect compensation for medical costs.

The Civil Rights Act would put a limit of $150,000 on punitive damages women could collect. The ceiling is one of numerous compromises that civil rights advocates made to satisfy the right-wingers running the civil rights division at the Justice Department and those who have Bush's ear.

Prominent black Republicans, including Arthur Fletcher, Bush's appointee to head the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and a Bush friend for more than 20 years, have urged him not to veto the legislation.

Ralph Neas, director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, says "the president on the one hand is telling Congress and the civil rights community, 'I want to work with you, I want to overturn those decisions,' and on the other hand you have a White House staff and an attorney general who think those atrocious decisions last year were victories. They keep presenting proposals that codify the Supreme Court decisions."

Until now, he said, civil rights activists have been reluctant to criticize Bush because he appeared to be so much better than Reagan. "Everyone said his decision on the Civil Rights Act of 1990 would define the Bush presidency on civil rights. Well, the veto will define the Bush presidency. Regrettably, the president has capitulated to the right wing on this and is defying the bipartisan congressional consensus."

The quota argument is nothing more than a smoke screen for vetoing legislation that would promote economic equality for blacks and women. If Bush vetoes the measure, he will prove beyond doubt that with him, at least, if there's a choice between politics and principle, politics wins every time.