The White House yesterday reiterated President Bush's plans to veto the 1990 Civil Rights Act amid new charges that the administration's proposed alternative language would make it easy for businesses to discriminate.
The critics charged that the administration language -- which did not make it into the final version of the bill -- would allow businesses to defend themselves against job discrimination suits by simply claiming their customers do not want to deal with blacks, Jews or other minorities.
Arthur Fletcher, appointed by Bush to chair the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, called the proposed White House language "an absolute outrage. It would take us back to the 1940s. I cannot believe anyone sincere about civil rights could have proposed such language."
The president has said he opposes the bill because it would lead businesses to adopt quota hiring systems.
The latest confrontation is over a revision of sections of the legislation White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu sent Sept. 21 to the chief Senate sponsor, Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). The language presented grounds employers could use to defend themselves in discrimination suits. The administration proposal offered a defense that employer practices were prompted by, among other factors, "legitimate community or customer relationship efforts."
The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which is lobbying on behalf of the legislation, charged that "customer relations" is code language once used by businesses as justification for refusing to hire minorities and others. "The administration's proposal would allow law firms, banks, and other employers to bar blacks or Jews or Catholics from certain jobs because customers prefer not to deal with them," said the conference.
A White House spokesman declined comment, but a Justice Department official dismissed the criticisms as untrue, saying insertion of the word "legitimate" rules out such conduct.
The language was designed to give companies some "leeway" in deciding who to hire, "but it would not be legitimate if you were tailoring your hiring to the discriminatory desires of some segment of the community," the official said.
The language was rejected by Kennedy and others involved with the legislation who said Sununu's proposed language, drafted by White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray, is evidence that the administration has been trying to delay a vote, not seriously negotiate a compromise, during its months of talks with legislators on the bill.
The controversy over the final White House language came as Attorney General Dick Thornburgh sent a letter to Congress criticizing a new compromise version of the legislation approved by a House-Senate conference committee Thursday. Thornburgh said the compromise, expected to go to the floor in both chambers next week, does not address many of the administration's concerns and in some cases "makes the bill even more of a quota bill than it already was." The president "will be compelled to veto," Thornburgh wrote.
As Thornburgh issued his letter, senior White House officials met with major business groups that will work to sustain a presidential veto. The group -- a coalition of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and several hundred other employer groups -- has been working with the administration in the negotiations with Congress.
Meanwhile, senior black members of the Bush administration and other black Republicans prepared to make a new effort to persuade the president not to veto the bill. According to Fletcher, Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan and Constance B. Newman, head of the Office of Personnel Management, represented a group of black Republicans who urged Bush in August to back the bill.
Fletcher said the "business community, the Chamber of Commerce has had the president's ear on this . . . . We are hoping to make our case."