Brushing aside veto threats, the Senate last night approved major civil rights legislation that would reverse six recent Supreme Court decisions limiting the impact of federal laws against job discrimination and would also broaden remedies available to women in employment bias cases.
The legislation was approved by a vote of 65 to 34 and sent to the House for consideration later this year, presumably before Congress's August recess. Ten moderate Republicans joined all 55 Democrats in voting for the bill.
"This legislation, I think, defines the kind of America we want America to be," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chief sponsor of the measure, which is the year's top priority of the civil rights movement.
Approval followed collapse of intense, week-long negotiations between Democratic and Republican sponsors and top White House officials, who argued that several key provisions would lead to racial and other quotas in hiring and promotion.
Bush said yesterday he "desperately" wants to sign a civil rights bill but renewed his threat to veto any bill that he regards as an invitation to quotas.
"This is a bill that can do a lot of good for a lot of people and it is going nowhere," complained Sen. John C. Danforth (Mo.), one of several Republican mavericks who tried to help negotiate a compromise.
But Kennedy said he thinks there is still a "good chance" that Bush will sign the legislation, which still must go through the House and a House-Senate conference, or that Congress will override a veto.
However, the 65 votes in favor of the bill fell two short of the 67 required to override a veto.
In addition to reversing or modifying six 1989 and 1990 high court rulings -- which narrowed the scope and remedies of existing laws against discrimination in the workplace -- the bill would give victims of all forms of bias the right to sue for compensatory and, in extreme cases, punitive damages. Only victims of racial discrimination can now sue for these remedies.
The most controversial provision would make it easier for workers to challenge employment practices that disproportionately affect minority groups. The bill would require companies under attack in court to prove that their practices were prompted by "business necessity," which is defined as having a "significant relationship to successful performance of the job."
The administration contended that this would force employers to adopt hiring and promotion quotas to protect themselves against lawsuits from workers. Senate Republicans predicted a "litigation bonanza" over the measure's complex provisions.
Before voting on the bill, the Senate approved, 65 to 34, a series of modifications proposed by Kennedy to allay concerns of conservative Democrats and wavering Republicans, including one that stated flatly that the bill could not be "construed to require an employer to adopt hiring or promotion quotas."
"Quotas, schmotas," Kennedy said. "Quotas are not the issue, job discrimination is the issue."
But in a renewal of angry partisan recriminations that rocked the Senate Tuesday, Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) blocked several other modifications sought by Democrats, claiming he had no obligation to help them after they voted for cloture Tuesday night over GOP objections that this would prevent due consideration of their proposals.
Those GOP proposals were aimed largely at shielding small businesses from heavy compensatory and punitive damages and included a $150,000 ceiling on punitive damages.
An angry Sen. J. James Exon (Neb.), the only Democrat who voted with most Republicans against cloture, said he now wonders why Democrats bother to support Dole's position when he treats them that way. "We know how cutting you can be and how you can tear the Senate apart as you almost did yesterday," Exon told Dole.
In response, an unrepentent Dole accused the Democrats of trying to "have it both ways" and said he was not interested in "turning the other cheek." Republicans do not have "any obligation to go out of our way to take care of Democrats who were stuck out in the cold," he added, referring to Democrats who had misgivings about the damages provision.
"Please don't punish civil rights by your stand, Mr. Republican leader," responded Exon.
Even though the proposals of concern to conservative Democrats were excluded, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) said he would work in a House-Senate conference to include them.
The House Judiciary Committee is expected to act on its version of the bill in a week or so, and House leaders have indicated they hope to schedule floor action on the measure before recess is scheduled to start Aug. 3. One reason for the push is that budget-related bills will get priority when Congress returns in September, squeezing out many bills not yet cleared by both houses.
The 10 Republicans who voted for the bill were Sens. John H. Chafee (R.I.), William S. Cohen (Maine), Danforth, Pete V. Domenici (N.M.), Dave Durenberger (Minn.), Mark O. Hatfield (Ore.), John Heinz (Pa.), James M. Jeffords (Vt.), Bob Packwood (Ore.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.).
An alternative proposed by Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.), favored by the administration but opposed by civil rights groups, was withdrawn before the final round of votes last night, apparently for lack of support.
In a speech to the National Council of La Raza here yesterday before the vote, Bush sounded defensive about the bill. "I hope you know where I have stood and always stand on the civil rights matters," he said. "I very much want to sign a civil rights bill."
But he told the Hispanic group audience, which sat silently during his talk, "I owe it to you to see that this legislation does not say to the young kids, 'You only fit in if you fit into a certain numbered quota.' That is not the American dream."