The White House yesterday began arranging a series of negotiating sessions with Senate Democrats on the Civil Rights Act of 1990 but warned that the process of reaching agreement "could take weeks."

President Bush met yesterday with 18 Republican senators in a session devoted primarily to the measure, which civil rights groups have called their top priority. According to officials at the White House session, Bush received a range of appeals from senators urging him to work out a compromise so that he could sign legislation that would not be "a quota bill." Bush has said he opposes legislation that would force employers to hire by quota to avoid litigation.

Officials said Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) told the group, which included Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and key Senate Republicans involved in the legislation, that Democrats are attempting to rush the White House into a compromise and do not have the strong majority support in the Senate they are claiming. Dole also said it is unlikely, if not impossible, that the measure would come up during the visit here of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela.

Civil rights groups have been pushing the Democrats to arrange such scheduling to increase the pressure on Bush to compromise. Democratic officials said yesterday no decision has been made on scheduling the bill for Senate debate.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the "bottom line" for Bush is "he does not want to veto the bill. He wants a civil rights bill he can sign." But, he said, "We're willing to veto this bill if it is a quota bill."

Alixe Glen, the deputy press secretary, said that White House and Justice Department officials have gone over the legislation "line by line, letting them {the bill's Democratic sponsors} know our concerns, and they have gone through it line by line letting us know their concerns. . . . It will take weeks to work this out, but we do want to work it out."

Civil rights leaders took immediate issue with the suggestion that a lengthy negotiating process was needed. Ralph Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, noted that talks between the White House and Democrats have been going on since May 24 and questioned why weeks more of negotiation are necessary at a time Congress has fewer than 60 legislative days scheduled in the session. "We fear that some in the administration may be attempting to implement a delaying strategy," he said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, said, "I don't think anybody wants to see the president veto any civil rights bill. But on the other hand, he's made it quite clear that he wants it changed and he wants the changes to work."

Hatch cautioned against bringing the measure up during Mandela's visit. "This deserves more consideration than that," Hatch said.