A Justice Department effort to weaken a 20-year-old executive order on affirmative action for government contractors lost some momentum yesterday as a Cabinet council delivered a split verdict on the plan and gave President Reagan several options to choose among.
The Cabinet's Domestic Policy Council met after Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) joined 175 members of Congress, civil rights groups and some business spokesmen in opposing changes in the 1965 order. Democratic lawmakers have prepared legislation to block any change.
At issue is the Labor Department's authority to require federal contractors, who have a total of 73 million employes, to meet numerical goals and timetables in hiring minorities and women.
As recently as two weeks ago, it appeared that Attorney General Edwin Meese III, who wants to abolish affirmative action goals and timetables, had prevailed over Labor Secretary William E. Brock, who wants to preserve most of the current rules.
But the council, chaired by Meese, voted after a heated discussion to send Reagan three options. The issue's sensitivity was underscored by the fact that most of the Cabinet attended the session, as did White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan.
Earlier, after meeting with Reagan on other issues, Dole told reporters: "My view is they shouldn't change the executive order. Leave it as it is." He said Brock could resolve any problems "through regulation, rather than change an executive order that's been around for 20 years."
"When it works, you don't fix it," Michel said.
Sources said the first Cabinet option, pushed by Meese, would bar the Labor Department from penalizing companies for failing to meet numerical hiring goals, which Meese views as illegal quotas. While allowing businesses to set voluntary goals for hiring, firing and promotions, the Meese proposal would say that there is no "legal basis" for plans that discriminate on the basis of race or gender.
Critics say that this option would gut the enforcement program and leave companies vulnerable to reverse-discrimination lawsuits by the Justice Department.
The second option, favored by Brock, would make no change in the executive order but would have the Labor Department revise the program's rules to make them less burdensome to businesses. That is a step that the department was planning to do anyway.
A third compromise option would preserve the current order but add language barring the use of fixed quotas and promising to ease regulations, sources said.
A Justice Department spokesman said Meese was "not displeased" with the outcome of the session.