Reagan administration officials, trying to resolve an internal dispute over affirmative action, have drafted a revised executive order that would eliminate requirements for federal contractors to set numerical goals for hiring minorities and women but allow them to do so voluntarily if their plan is legal.
The compromise, described by administration officials, is designed to satisfy Labor Secretary William E. Brock's insistence that goals and timetables -- short of rigid quota requirements -- are legitimate tools for employers to use in overcoming discrimination against women and minorities.
The new draft for the executive order, written by William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, also would satisfy a pledge by Attorney General Edwin Meese III that no government order will require the use of goals or timetables.
In addition, Justice Department officials note that employers could not use the executive order as justification for imposing goals or timetables if they are challenged in court, for example, by white employes concerned that the plan may be unfair to them.
"Under Title VII, no discrimination is permitted in hiring or promotion of employes," said a Justice Department official. "If that is the case, it would be up to the courts to lay that down as the law . . . . The Justice Department might even side with the complainants who brought such a case."
No decision has been made on the second draft, which is under study by the White House, the Justice Department, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Labor Department. Administration officials estimate that a decision will be made within two weeks.
The new executive order would replace one signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 that required companies doing business with the government to develop "specific goals and timetables for the prompt achievement of full and equal employment opportunity."
Since the first draft of the revised executive order was leaked to the press last month, the administration has been stalled by intense criticism from civil rights groups as well as internal debate over the best language.
"The original language in [the first draft of] the executive order did not prohibit the use of goals and timetables, but neither did it put the administration's imprimatur of support for the voluntary use of timetables where they are appropriate," said a White House official.
Corporations also have voiced concern that the original language would leave them without any guide in the area of affirmative action, possibly reopening old arguments over their hiring practices.
According to White House sources, Meese and Brock were directed by White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan to "work it out" or have him make the decision.
Regan has resisted having the president sign the new order, according to White House officials, because of Reagan's low ratings among black Americans. However, the administration has been under pressure from conservatives to undo the current order, which they argue conflicts with the administration's fight against the use of statistical measures to show discrimination or repair past bias.
At Brock's insistence, the new draft includes language that makes explicit the administration's opposition to discrimination and support for affirmative action in recruiting women and minorities for jobs.
Critics of the administration's plan said the new draft remains unacceptable to them.
"There is no need for a new executive order," said Ralph Nease, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "What we need is for the administration to put the same effort into enforcing the existing order."