Facing a decision on whether to go ahead with his threat to veto the 1990 Civil Rights Act, President Bush yesterday met with key Republican backers of the bill who said afterward that they think it is still possible to reach a compromise.

As part of the eleventh-hour effort, Bush also met with William T. Coleman Jr., the former transportation secretary who had been trying to broker an agreement between civil rights forces and the administration and talked on the phone with civil rights leaders, including NAACP Chairman Benjamin Hooks.

Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.) said last night that the meeting he and four other Republican senators had with Bush "went very well. I am convinced he wants a bill and it was just the first time we had been able to get beyond the outer guard" to make the case and hear Bush's views. The reference was to White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, who have handled virtually all the negotiations on the legislation.

Backed by a broad coalition of civil rights groups, the bill seeks to reverse or modify six Supreme Court rulings that supporters say have weakened federal anti-discrimination protections in the workplace and made it more difficult for minorities and women to prevail in lawsuits alleging they have been discriminated against in hiring and promotion. The bill would also allow women and members of religious minorities to collect damages if they prove intentional discrimination by employers.

But Bush's advisers, led by Thornburgh and Gray, remain convinced that the bill -- even after extensive revisions -- would produce a flood of new litigation and would end up causing employers to "throw up their hands" and establish, in effect, racial quotas in hiring.

Jeffords, who on Wednesday was sharply critical of what he called the White House efforts to build "loopholes to allow discrimination" said the president had displayed "a great deal more flexibility" on language over the key issue -- the so-called quota language -- than the administration had displayed previously.

Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) said Bush indicated "he would consider the possibility" of signing the legislation if Congress would agree to certain language changes and passed companion legislation making the changes. Bush would then delay vetoing the civil rights legislation until the other bill was approved and then would sign both.

A senior White House official said last night that Bush's session, with Jeffords, Danforth, Sens. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.), had not changed the basic White House position. "If the legislation as written comes to us, we would veto it," the official said, adding, "Nothing has changed at this point."

Gorton was also not optimistic, saying the differences are "the same they have always been. I'm always hopeful, but I'm not going to bet the family homestead."

Bush met with Coleman after the lawyer wrote him an impassioned letter noting that the president had called on him, as a black Republican supporter, to help negotiate an agreement. He pleaded for "15 minutes" of Bush's time to make what he called a "reasonable" case to a "reasonable" president.

Representatives of civil rights groups said they were unsure last night whether Bush was touching bases before he vetoes the legislation or trying to get a compromise. "Who knows what it means?" one said.

In recent days, the groups have used increasingly harsh language to accuse Bush of playing to racial fears and catering to a "far right wing" constituency that resents affirmative action or any other policies designed to help minorities.

Vetoing the bill, according to White House aides, would be the result of a complex political calculation aimed at least in part at preserving the GOP voter coalition of business groups and conservative Democrats.

"My argument has been if it's a wash, he ought to go with the veto because we have expended all our efforts to get new voters into the coalition {and} for once we ought to do something to keep what we've got, the Reagan Democrats," one administration official said. "These are the issues, the social issues, that brought them to us."

While the civil rights groups have portrayed the debate as a fight over equal employment opportunities for minorities and women, the business community has seen the measure as primarily a move by plaintiff's lawyers to regain a tactical advantage in lawsuits. Because businesses stand to lose the most in such lawsuits, they have a major economic interest in resisting the measure, and have declined even to participate in negotiations.

Much of the debate has little to do with the issues in the civil rights battles of the past -- outlawing intentional discrimination against blacks and women. Instead, it deals with what civil rights groups say is a far more complex and pervasive problem -- so-called "disparate impact" cases in which it is alleged that there is a racial or gender imbalance in an employer's workforce.

It is these sorts of cases that potentially affect virtually every major corporation, many of which have workforces in which minorites and women are underrepresented at senior management levels, and it is these cases that were most substantially altered by the new rules laid down by the Supreme Court.

In a case known as Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, which alleged discrimination against Eskimos and Filipinos in an Alaskan salmon canning factory, the court ruled 5 to 4 that it was not enough for workers to present statistics showing a racial or gender imbalance in a company's workforce. Plaintiffs also had to prove that a company's specific employment practices -- such as a written promotion test or an arbitrary educational requirement -- caused the discrimination.

In recent weeks, negotiations between the administration and the bill's supporters were devoted to debating to what degree employees should be forced to pinpoint employment practices when alleging that employers engaged in unintentional job discrimination.

In hopes of averting a veto and winning more congressional support, the bill's proponents gave significant ground. The legislation now requires plaintiffs to identify which practice or practices produce a discriminatory result, unless a judge finds that the employer cannot or will not produce the records the plaintiff needs to be more specific.

Under previous versions, a plaintiff was required to pinpoint practices only in cases where the judge found the employer's records allow the plaintiff to be that specific.

But administration officials and business lobbyists insist the changes are meaningless. The requirement to maintain records that justify particular hiring practices is impossible because hiring is often an inherently subjective decision that takes into account a host of factors.

The lawyers were unmoved by the threat to Bush, who had enjoyed high approval ratings from blacks and a cordial relationship with black leaders from the outset of his presidency. As a result, Bush is now prepared to join only two other presidents in U.S. history -- Ronald Reagan and Andrew Johnson -- to veto civil rights legislation, perhaps as early as today. Staff writers Helen Dewar and Sharon LaFraniere contributed to this report.