Senate Democrats moved yesterday to force action on civil rights legislation as angry Republican conservatives balked at a tentative accord between White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) on a key provision that had prompted a veto threat by President Bush.
Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) scheduled a vote Tuesday on a cloture motion to limit debate in apparent hopes of hastening action on the controversial measure, which has stirred considerable opposition in the business community.
Leaving for Camp David yesterday afternoon, Bush said he was optimistic that an agreement could be reached with the Democrats. "I hope I'm right in saying it looks like we can work something out on that," he said.
The Kennedy-sponsored legislation would overturn a series of recent Supreme Court decisions that have narrowed the reach of existing laws against job discrimination. It also would allow victims of all forms of employment bias to sue for compensatory and punitive damages, which are now permissible only in cases of racial discrimination.
The Kennedy-Sununu understanding, which was reached early Thursday, seeks to spell out in highly legalistic language what an employer must do to comply with affirmative action laws without resorting to quotas, which the Bush administration vigorously opposes.
But the language did not satisfy either civil rights groups or conservative Republicans, although civil rights lobbyists described it as an improvement over earlier Sununu proposals. Conservative Republicans contended it would force employers into quotas to avoid endless litigation and denounced it in strong terms.
"If it is adopted, it will play havoc with the free enterprise system. . . . it will hurt the administration in the eyes of the free enterprise business community," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) after an especially rancorous meeting Thursday between Sununu and Senate Republicans.
In his comments yesterday, Bush reiterated his opposition to quotas. "I want to sign a civil rights bill, I will not sign a quota bill. And that's about where we are, but I think it's looking encouraging," he said. Bush also appeared to go out of his way to praise Kennedy, saying he was working "quite cooperatively with us, the Republican side."
According to sources close to the negotiations, some Republicans fear that the administration has concluded it must make a deal with Kennedy in order to get full political credit from the black community for helping to pass the legislation.
Conservatives promptly began pressing the White House to stiffen its bargaining position and at least some appeared to be rallying around an omnibus alternative being circulated by moderate Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) that civil rights lobbyists denounced as unacceptable.
Kassebaum said the White House was encouraging her efforts to craft a compromise and indicated she was picking up support in part because of frustration among senators over the inconclusive and legalistic nature of the negotiations. "It's like how many ways can you split a hair," she said. "You have Kennedy going off to check with his people and Sununu going off to check with his people, and pretty soon you have only the lawyers and I'm not sure even they understand it."
Still to be worked out are several other issues, including the highly sensitive damages question. But Kennedy said he believed he and Sununu were close to agreement and anticipated a "successful conclusion" to the talks next week.
Some of his key allies in the moderate Republican camp expressed similar views. "I think a clear majority of the Senate is in favor of this kind of approach," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who developed the compromise language. Staff writers Dan Balz and Ann Devroy contributed to this report.