A House-Senate conference committee yesterday reached final agreement on a major civil rights bill, but White House officials said President Bush will veto the measure on the grounds that it will impose hiring quotas based on race and sex.
"They made some positive changes on damages, but it still remains a quota bill and therefore our veto threat still stands," said White House spokeswoman Alixe Glen.
The bill, which is the top legislative priority of civil rights groups this year, would overturn five recent Supreme Court decisions that supporters contend have had the effect of restricting the ability of minorities and women to prevail in job-discrimination lawsuits in the courts.
But opponents, including Bush administration officials, have charged that the measure would go well beyond restoring previous law and would have the ultimate effect of forcing businesses to impose quotas simply to avoid the threat of litigation.
Separate versions of the measure cleared both houses earlier this year by lopsided margins. But the bipartisan conference committee was split over whether to limit the amount of punitive damages awarded after a court has made a finding of intentional discrimination.
As a practical matter, the cap on punitive damages would apply only to women who bring suits alleging sex discrimination or harassement since minorities can already collect unlimited compensatory and punitive damages under existing civil rights law. Some civil rights groups had opposed such a cap, but the House version included one for claims against small businesses, and the bill's Senate sponsors, led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), had promised to accept such a limit in conference committee in order to gain the support of some conservative Democrats.
Yesterday, the conferees voted 9 to 7 to cap punitive damages at either $150,000 or compensatory damages plus lost pay, whichever is larger, in suits against businesses of any size. Four committee Democrats abstained on the vote, and Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) said it "sets a terrible precedent."
"None of the civil rights groups like a cap at all, but it was a compromise that members felt was necessary to insure that full support was maintained by the Senate," said Kerry Scanlon, a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The final version of the bill is expected to be considered by both houses as early as next week and then be sent to Bush for his signature. The matter has been politically sensitive for months, with leading black Republicans urging Bush not to jeopardize his relatively high poll ratings among blacks by opposing the measure. But last April, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh recommended that Bush veto the bill, and White House officials have accepted the arguments of business groups that it would spur a wave of new litigation and place undue burdens on employers.