The Reagan administration's effort to draft a presidential statement on affirmative action has underscored not only President Reagan's uneasy relationship with minorities but the sharp divisions within the administration over the substance of the issue.
The differences came to light again yesterday when Labor Secretary William E. Brock, who broke with the administration during a speech to the NAACP, told the National Urban League that he favors use of flexible goals and timetables to help women and minorities overcome the effects of discrimination.
Brock, who has been at odds with Attorney General Edwin Meese III and William Bradford Reynolds, the chief architect of the administration's civil rights policy, avoided a public fight yesterday by telling the league he and Reynolds favor some kind of affirmative action without defining what he meant -- mirroring the debate that has raged inside the administration.
"We've been Carterized on affirmative action," said an administration official. "Every Cabinet secretary is off and running with his own policies in his own little piece of turf. What really separates this president from his predecessor is there is someone on top running the whole Mickey Mouse operation . . . but on affirmative action there's too much free-lancing."
The consensus within the administration is that the president should issue a statement on the complex subject to rationalize policy.
But administration officials have found themselves at odds over what the statement should say. The Labor Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission continue to enforce statutes that call for quotas, even as the Justice Department is challenging such use by local governments.
According to administration officials there are three schools of thought on the possible statement:
*The president could limit himself to condemning quotas as contrary to the ideal of equal opportunity for all, including qualified white men.
*He could advocate use of goals and timetables to hire women and blacks for companies with histories of discrimination while still eschewing the use of quotas.
*He could say nothing.
"Some people say, 'Why stir the pot?' " said one administration official. "The counterpoint is that the pot needs stirring, the soup is going bad; you don't want the president to go down in history as, well, hated by blacks . . . . In a positive sense this is an opportunity to put a very personal stamp on the issue and sell Ronald Reagan's view of civil rights. We can't let our opponents sell a view that all Reagan did was oppose civil rights . . . ."
In addition to repairing the president's image on civil rights, the statement could help end contradictions in administration policy. For example, the president has spoken in support of minority set-aside programs on federal contracts while opposing quotas in hiring. Until now, administration policy has been to oppose use of quotas.
Meese and Reynolds contend that any mention of goals and timetables could be a first step to adopting quotas.
"Their feeling is that goals and timetables represent the slippery slope," an administration official said. "Once you start talking about goals and timetables then you're sliding downhill to quotas. You have to be aware that some employers may not meet those goals and timetables and the government would have to respond . . . possibly by imposing quotas."
Absent any mention of goals and timetables, Reagan would not be making any positive statement of support for helping women and minorities into the work force.
Yesterday Brock was careful to lock arms with the president on opposition to quotas: "What does affirmative action mean? . . . It does not mean heavy-handed government edicts on absolute numerical quotas . . . . Affirmative action is a statement of national will, of intent, of integrity . . . . Does it mean everyone who does business with this government has to take exactly the same steps? Of course not. That would be to deny all that this country is about. Does it mean that one can have goals. Yes. But those goals can be set in different ways to respond to different situations."
Two weeks ago Brock was more direct in setting his basic stance on the need for aggressive affirmative action before the NAACP.
"We as a country have lived for 200 years with a major part of our population in remarkable disadvantage," he said. "And it takes some time to recover from that. Maybe we the current generation of white Americans were not here then. But that does not change the obligation we have as citizens to respond to that situation."
Reynolds continues to resist Brock's suggestion that the administration advocate use of goals and quotas, even though he said he favored recruiting minorities and women in cases where there is proven discrimination.
Testifying before Congress recently, he said he would limit remedies for companies that have discriminated to awarding back pay and seniority to individuals who can prove they were victims of discrimination. The only additional step he would take, he said, would be to have the guilty company make job opportunities known to qualified women and minorities. He said he opposed requirements that companies hire women or minorities because that would amount to "discrimination" against white men.
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), after listening to Reynolds refuse to accept use of quotas even as a last resort in cases of blatant discrimination, said, "I think the problem is we think people discriminate and he thinks quotas discriminate."