Bush administration officials and civil rights activists are employing new tactics as they resume the battle over a civil rights bill that resulted in an angry stalemate last year.
The White House this time is taking the offensive, packaging its civil rights proposal with education and housing initiatives in an attempt to broaden the debate from job discrimination law to "individual rights."
Civil rights activists, hurt last year by administration charges their bill would encourage job quotas, plan to stress the benefits in their proposal for women and use the war to highlight the question of fairness for minorities. If President Bush is willing to send a disproportionate share of blacks to the Persian Gulf, they contend, why is he unwilling to grant them protection from job discrimination?
Both sides, remembering the months of tortured negotiations that eventually led to a presidential veto last year, are marshaling their arguments early. The bill supported by civil rights groups was the first introduced in the new Congress. It is virtually the same as last year's proposal, except that it eliminates a compromise cap on monetary damages for intentional job discrimination.
One administration official said the White House will also propose tougher language than it offered during negotiations. "The Democrats have gone back to square one and so are we," the official said. But other administration officials said there is no final consensus.
The White House is expected to release a package next week that links a job discrimination bill to programs to allow those in public housing to purchase their dwellings and to give parents more choice in where to send their children to school, among other initiatives. The theme is that affording people "opportunity" is the strongest civil rights agenda, one official said.
Today, administration officials were scheduled to discuss their strategy with key members of Congress. Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.), who spoke with White House officials yesterday and belongs to a newly formed, Republican "civil rights task force," said he hopes the administration does not "go to the right" as the Democrats went "to the left."
"If your goal is civil rights legislation rather than civil rights politics, we should pick up" where the two sides left off, Gunderson said.
The basic issues remain much the same as last year. Civil rights groups want to significantly broaden the range of plaintiffs allowed to seek jury trials and monetary damages for intentional discrimination on the job; the administration objects to both ideas.
Civil rights activists also are determined to nullify the Supreme Court's 1989 ruling in Wards Cove v. Atonio that they say reversed a landmark case and made it harder for employees to win suits alleging more subtle forms of job bias. The administration wants to keep at least part of the Wards Cove ruling, arguing that looser language would lead employers to adopt quotas to protect themselves from suits.
Administration officials said they feel more comfortable with their position this year because the polls showed little change in Bush's standing among minorities after he vetoed the civil rights bill last year.
Civil rights groups, on the other hand, expect to benefit from the administration's embarrassing attempt to restrict minority scholarships as discriminatory. Bush was forced to declare his belief in affirmative action after the Education Department issued a ruling restricting the scholarships -- a decision it later modified.