If it were a legislative battle, it would be said that neither side has the votes to win.
But the fight over the proposed executive order on affirmative action is being waged in the inner councils of the Reagan administration, which has reached a stalemate over the nettlesome issue. After five months of wrangling, the only consensus among those involved is that nothing is likely to happen soon.
"It's kind of in a strange limbo," a Labor Department official said.
The impasse tells a great deal about how the administration makes, or fails to make, key decisions. It underscores the approach of a president who prefers that his aides reach agreement before he gets involved.
On one side, Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds -- backed by many administration conservatives -- are trying to weaken the 20-year-old presidential order that involves minority hiring goals for government contractors. On the other, Labor Secretary William E. Brock -- with strong support from Cabinet moderates -- has managed to block the Justice Department's proposals.
White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan, described by aides as worried about the potential political fallout, has kept the matter off the president's desk. Instead, he has ordered Meese and Brock to resolve their differences, a goal that has proved elusive.
"The administration is full of excuses from those people who don't want to do anything," one Justice Department official said. "Some people in the White House can give you an excuse for every day of the year."
After the Cabinet publicly split on the executive order in October, the White House put out the word that the issue was on hold until after the Geneva summit in November. Then negotiations were suspended when Brock's wife became ill; she died days after Christmas.
The latest window of opportunity is the current congressional recess, as criticism would be muted while the lawmakers are out of town. But some administration officials are determined to do nothing close to Jan. 20, when Martin Luther King's birthday is celebrated, and Congress reconvenes the next day.
Sixty-nine senators and 180 House members have signed letters urging Reagan not to adopt a new executive order, and many have threatened to push legislation that would negate such an order. A wide array of groups representing blacks, women, Jews and labor are also fighting the Meese proposals, as is much of the business community, led by the National Association of Manufacturers.
"This is the largest coalition ever on a civil rights issue," said Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. He said support in the Republican-controlled Senate, including Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), exceeds that for the 1982 extension of the Voting Rights Act.
If Reagan ignores that sentiment, Neas said, he will "create a political firestorm that's going to hurt Republicans, who want to retain control of the Senate this year."
Still, opponents are reluctant to declare the issue dead because of Meese -- one of the administration's most influential figures, whose views on race-conscious remedies are shared by Reagan. "The thinking is that if something gets to the president that reflects Meese's views, he'll sign it," a business lobbyist said.
The 1965 order by President Lyndon B. Johnson covers government contractors with 73 million employes. Under rules adopted in the Nixon administration -- when Secretary of State George P. Shultz headed the Labor Department -- companies with low percentages of minority and female employes are required to make a good-faith effort to meet certain hiring goals and timetables. The Labor Department can cut off federal funds to recalcitrant companies, but has done so only twice.
Supporters say the program has worked, pointing to Labor Department studies that show a sharp increase in the number of minorities and women employed by federal contractors. Many business leaders say they have grown comfortable with the program's rules and fear that changes would subject them to reverse-discrimination suits by white employes.
But critics, led by Reynolds, say the program rules have been enforced so inflexibly that they amount to illegal quotas. They dispute claims of the program's effectiveness and say that numerical targets provide a ceiling, not a floor, for minority hiring.
"We have a hard time understanding the difference between a mandatory goal imposed by the Labor Department and a quota," said Virginia Lamp of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The original Justice Department proposal would change the executive order to say that no contractor could be penalized for failing to meet any statistical hiring goal. It said that while businesses are free to adopt voluntary affirmative action plans, there is no legal basis for race-based preferences.
Justice officials proposed a compromise in December that would rule out quotas while allowing Labor to enforce a less rigid set of goals and timetables. But this plan, which touched off another flurry of opposition lobbying, proved unacceptable to Brock.
Many observers say the White House may simply allow the issue to fade away, never announcing a decision in an effort to avoid portraying Meese as the losing party. Said one business official: "If you had to bet on whether there will be a revision, nonrevision or nothing, absolutely nothing would be the best bet at this point."
But a Justice official said it is more likely that differences will be papered over. "The two sides might end up revising the executive order and recutting the regulations so it looks like you're doing something, but not really tackling the tough nut of what constitutes goals and quotas," he said.
Both sides could then issue interpretations and declare victory, the official said.