The House yesterday easily approved civil rights legislation designed to offset a series of Supreme Court rulings and strengthen protections against employment discrimination, setting up a confrontation with President Bush that the White House fought hard to avoid.
The bill approved by the House on a 272 to 154 vote is virtually identical to legislation passed by the Senate that Bush has threatened to veto.
The vote capped a ferocious two-day struggle between the House Democratic leadership and the Bush administration, which strongly backed a Republican alternative that administration officials said Bush would sign. Twelve Democrats voted against the Democratic bill and 32 Republicans voted for it.
Earlier yesterday, House Democrats defeated, 238 to 188, the White House-backed alternative that supporters said would restore anti-discrimination protections without encouraging job quotas, but which opponents said essentially would codify the court rulings weakening anti-bias laws.
Neither the House nor the Senate, which passed its version of the measure last month, 65 to 34, approved the legislation by sufficient margins to withstand a veto. But yesterday's action still marked a major political confrontation between Congress and the White House on a bedrock Democratic issue as the November election draws nearer.
The stakes for Bush were high and were underscored by the strenuous White House effort to win approval of the GOP alternative. The president opposed the Democratic bill on the grounds that it would lead to employer-imposed quota systems, but he also clearly fears the political consequences of vetoing legislation that is strongly backed by the civil rights community.
The underlying political struggle between a Democratic-controlled Congress and a Republican administration eager to make electoral gains with women, blacks and other minorities was on full display during two days of emotional House debate.
Republicans charged that the bill would needlessly impede business and that the Democrats were more interested in gaining a political cudgel to use against Bush than in advancing civil rights. Democrats responded with accusations that the GOP was trying to turn back the clock on hard-fought civil rights gains under the guise of opposing quotas.
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), closing debate for his party, recalled the words of former president Lyndon B. Johnson when he signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act almost exactly 25 years ago. Passage of the measure, Foley quoted Johnson as saying, "will be as great a victory as was won on any battlefield."
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement who was severely beaten during the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s, recalled the struggles of a previous generation. "I feel like I'm watching a 26-year-old TV rerun," Lewis said Thursday night after listening to GOP lawmakers oppose the bill.
"Today," Lewis said, "we are hearing those same tired arguments, that civil rights legislation is bad for business, that it would result in chaos, that the stars would fall out of the sky in Texas, in Alabama, in Georgia. But the stars didn't fall from the sky in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. They didn't fall in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The stars didn't fall from the sky with the Fair Housing Act. And the stars aren't going to fall from the sky with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1990."
Against such soaring rhetoric, Republican, and some Democratic, opponents of the bill concentrated on what they said would be the practical impact of the measure in the workplace and the courtroom. "Everyone in this chamber is for civil rights," argued Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.). But the Democratic bill, he said, would "literally force employers to set up quota systems" and be a bonanza for lawyers.
The bill approved by the House reverses or modifies a half-dozen Supreme Court rulings since 1989 that have circumscribed the arsenal of legal weapons available to victims of job bias. In addition, it empowers victims of all types of discrimination to sue for compensatory, and in exceptional cases, punitive monetary damages. Currently, only those who suffer from racial discrimination may sue for those expansive remedies.
The most contentious provision of the bill would reaffirm standards set in a landmark 1971 Supreme Court case that outlawed seemingly neutral employment practices that disproportionately affect minorities unless the employer can demonstrate that the practices are required by a "business necessity." The case defined "business necessity" as "significantly related to successful job performance."
That 1971 standard was substantially altered by the Supreme Court last year in its ruling in Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, which shifted to employees the burden of proving that an employment practice is not required by business necessity and also watered down the definition of business necessity.
Though the House on Thursday added provisions to the legislation limiting punitive damages payable by small businesses to $150,000 and stating that nothing in the act requires employers to set up quotas, Bush repeated his opposition to the bill without reiterating an absolute veto threat.
Those changes, Bush said in a letter to House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), "do nothing to cure the bill's defects" and "do not result in a bill I could sign."