The Senate voted yesterday to speed passage of a major civil rights measure, setting off a stormy exchange during which Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), his voice quavering in anger, accused Democrats of playing politics with civil rights and treating Republicans "like a bunch of bums."
White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu promptly announced that President Bush will veto the bill -- which would overturn a series of 1989 Supreme Court decisions that limited the impact of federal laws against job discrimination -- if it is enacted by Congress in its current form.
But by mid-evening, tempers had cooled on all sides and Dole joined Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) to convene a final round by negotiators including Sununu and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chief sponsor of the bill.
"I think everyone agrees it's worth one last shot," Dole told the Senate. Only a few hours before, White House officials expressed doubt such talks would be productive, and Dole tried to call the Democrats' bluff by urging an immediate vote before they could adopt modifying amendments to satisfy wavering senators.
The Senate earlier signaled its intention to pass the bill by voting 62 to 38 to invoke cloture and limit debate to no more than 30 hours, putting it on track for passage by the end of the week.
Eight moderate Republicans joined with all Democrats except Sen. J. James Exon (Neb.) to produce the 62 votes, two more than needed under Senate rules.
The cloture vote, forced by the Democratic leadership, followed intense negotiations that collapsed Monday night after nearly producing agreement on at least one key issue involving standards of proof in discrimination cases. The administration says these could lead to hiring and promotion quotas, a contention the bill's advocates reject.
Angry at both the Democrats for forcing a vote and at the eight Republicans who defied both the White House and Senate GOP leadership to support cloture, Dole said Democrats had killed chances of bipartisan cooperation in the Senate and suggested bitterly that Republicans might want to find a new leader.
"If we're going to shove it down the throats of the minority, things are going to get tough around here," Dole said. He added that it was "totally unfair" to force a vote that would "put our party on record against civil rights" on a procedural question.
"This is a game, this is a political game. . . . You could hear the roar of the crowd after the victory," he said in reference to the cheers of civil rights advocates that echoed into the chamber after news of the cloture vote spread to the lobby.
"If we're going to be treated like a bunch of bums on this side of the aisle, then say so," he told the Democrats. "There's not going to be any time agreements, any agreements on anything at all, until we have some understanding this place is going to be run in a civil manner."
As for the Republican defectors, "maybe we should get together and elect another leader," Dole said. "If we're going to let Democrats run the Senate and throw away eight or nine Republican votes to help them, then I don't want any part of it." An aide to the senator said later that Dole was expressing anger at the GOP defections and not threatening to resign as party leader.
The Republicans who voted for cloture were Sens. William S. Cohen (Maine), John C. Danforth (Mo.), Dave Durenberger (Minn.), Mark O. Hatfield (Ore.), James M. Jeffords (Vt.), Bob Packwood (Ore.), John Heinz (Pa.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.). But even some of them complained heatedly about the Democratic move to force a vote before the Senate had a chance to debate the measure or consider major amendments.
Negotiations would have led to a bill that Bush could sign, and Republicans had made it clear they would agree to a time for a vote and not filibuster the legislation, Danforth said. But after the cloture vote, "we're going nowhere," he said. "The civil rights community has not won a victory here. They've just shot this bill down."
Sitting stone-faced as Dole shattered the formal cordiality that has characterized their relationship on the Senate floor for the past 18 months, Mitchell was as chilly in his anger as Dole was heated.
Mitchell contradicted Danforth's contention that the Republicans had signaled their agreement to set a time for the vote and disputed the charge by Danforth and Dole that he was gagging the Senate by premature use of cloture. A check of the records shows that Republicans, when they controlled the Senate from 1981 to 1987, scheduled cloture votes more often than he has done, Mitchell said.
"If there is one thing I've tried to do since I became majority leader, it's been to establish a sense of fairness and comity. . . . I thought I was succeeding in that effort," he said grimly.
There was also rancorous disagreement on whether one side or the other reneged on a deal in the negotiations, or whether there was any deal at all. At the White House, Sununu told reporters he believed Kennedy had reneged on the deal.
"I'm not unwilling to use the word renege," Sununu said. "I thought we had an agreement. The senator came in yesterday . . . and then we didn't have an agreement."
But Kennedy said neither he nor Bush had ever claimed a deal, and Republican former transportation secretary William Coleman, who was brought in by the White House as a middleman in the talks, said it was the administration, not Kennedy or the civil rights forces, that caused the talks to stalemate.
Coleman said there are "some" in the White House who do not really want to overturn the court cases and are "misadvising" the president on the bill's implications for quotas.
Reiterating and strengthening earlier veto threats unless the legislation was changed in several respects, Sununu said the president "feels very strongly that the bill, as presently crafted, will . . . create a situation" in which employers would have to "function with quotas in place."
As part of several compromise proposals offered yesterday before the vote, Kennedy suggested language specifically banning quotas.