The House yesterday approved an omnibus civil rights bill, which President Bush has threatened to veto, that would buttress federal protections against job discrimination and make it easier for minorities and women to prevail in civil rights suits.
The measure would modify or overturn six recent Supreme Court decisions that civil rights advocates argue have diminished the ability of women and minorities to win job-bias suits. It also would expand the monetary remedies available under the 1964 Civil Rights Act so that workers subject to job discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin could collect compensatory and, in extreme cases, punitive damages. Punitive damages would be capped in most cases at $150,000.
Passage of the measure, a top priority this year of civil rights groups, sets up an election eve showdown with Bush.
Supporters of the legislation said that last-minute changes to the bill had vitiated the objections of the White House that the measure would lead employers to set up quota systems in order to forestall costly litigation. Those changes included a proviso that the legislation should not be construed as requiring or encouraging quotas, and another making it somewhat easier for employers to defend business practices that unintentionally discriminate against women and minorities.
Although the House easily passed the civil rights measure on a 273 to 154 vote, the margin would be insufficient to overcome Bush's promised veto. If all House members were present for a post-veto vote, 290 would have to vote to override for the action to succeed. The Senate also could fall short of the two-thirds majority necessary to override a veto; it approved the bill Tuesday, 62 to 34, and would have to have 67 votes to override a veto if all senators were present and voting.
The White House, which had negotiated furiously with lawmakers for several months in an effort to alter the legislation and avoid having Bush become the third president, after Ronald Reagan and Andrew Johnson, to veto a civil rights bill, yesterday reiterated its position that Bush would veto the measure because he contends it would lead to the establishment of quotas in the workplace.
"The civil rights bill as amended in conference is neither sound nor practical and will have the effect of forcing businesses to adopt quotas in hiring and promotion," said White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater. "This bill in its current form will be vetoed."
The House vote followed the collapse of last-minute and sometimes heated negotiations between senior Bush administration officials and representatives of civil rights groups, who were trying to avert a veto. Over the weekend, after speaking by phone with former National Urban League president Vernon E. Jordan, Bush directed Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and White House counsel C. Boyden Gray to attempt to work out a compromise, officials said.
But the first session in Thornburgh's office did not go well and was described by one official as "fairly nasty." Jordan and former transportation secretary William T. Coleman Jr. rejected any further compromise on their part, administration officials said, and argued that it was in Bush's political interest to sign the measure.
A second bargaining session was held on Capitol Hill Tuesday, but the two sides were unable to reach agreement on what should be an employer's burden of proof in defending a practice against a charge of discrimination by women or minorities.
Civil rights leaders, who until this week had been reluctant to criticize Bush directly, were sharp in their attacks yesterday. Ralph Neas, director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said Bush's threat to veto the bill "shows that on issues of race and sex discrimination, Geroge Bush is a Ronald Reagan in sheep's clothing."
Jordan said Bush is being misled by his legal advisers into believing the measure is a quota bill. "This is not a quota bill, and even the president's own black advisers have told him that," he said. Arthur Fletcher, Bush's appointee to head the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, has repeatedly stated his support for the legislation.
In making political calculations on the legislation, White House and GOP sources said, the White House tried to balance Bush's efforts to retain what has been high support among black voters against his need to retain conservative white support, essentially his base. Until his approval ratings plummeted this month because of the budget morass, Bush's approval rating among blacks had been high; a Washington Post poll in January showed it at 74 percent. The officials said the White House concluded that signing legislation defined as a quota bill would cause more political harm to Bush than a veto of civil rights legislation.
Nevertheless, the prospect of a presidential veto of a major civil rights bill just before the Nov. 6 congressional elections is troubling to some Republicans, who already are concerned over the political impact of a budget impasse that has left their party on the defensive and appearing to protect the wealthy.
"When you label something civil rights, right away you've got the battle half won," conceded Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) during yesterday's House debate.
But despite that rhetorical disadvantage, Hyde and most of his Republican colleagues supported Bush yesterday in opposing a bill Hyde predicted would lead to job quotas "just as sure as Newton's three laws of motion."
"There is no need whatsoever for the president to take this step" of vetoing the bill, said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Tex.). "We've met every legitimate concern of the administration, and our efforts have been met with nothing but political sloganeering."
The centerpiece of the civil rights bill overturns the June 1989 Supreme Court decision in Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, a case that substantially modified job-bias protections stemming from a 1971 court ruling in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. The Griggs decision had placed upon employers the burden of proving that employment practices that have a disproportionate impact on minorities were dictated by "business necessity."
In Wards Cove, that burden was shifted to plaintiffs alleging job discrimination, forcing them to prove that the employment practice is not dictated by business necessity. The legislation approved yesterday restores the burden of proof to the employer, although under the last-minute changes to the bill the provision was softened to require plaintiffs to specifically identify those business practices that have a disproportionate impact on minorities.
Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), a leading supporter of the civil rights measure, said a Bush veto would have "devastating consequences" for minorities who are already finding it far more difficult to bring job-bias suits after the court's decisions last year.
Despite the failure of both the House and Senate to pass the bill by a two-thirds majority, Edwards said that "if the president vetoes this very decent, humane civil rights bill, I predict the House and Senate will override the veto."
Staff writers Ann Devroy and Michael Isikoff contributed to this report.