Civil Rights: The Dems Give An Inch, The Gop Wants Nine Yards

On the surface, it would seem that congressional Democrats and the Administration are heading toward a typically Bushian compromise on civil rights. On May 21, Democratic leaders unveiled a watered-down bill designed to meet two key Republican objections to the antidiscrimination measure: It puts a $150,000 cap on punitive damages for most victims of job discrimination, and it prohibits the use of racial quotas in hiring. In fact, the new bill is awfully close to President Bush's own legislation.

But appearances are deceiving. The White House order of the day is confrontation, not conciliation. While the Democrats' retreat may pick up some undecided lawmakers, GOP strategists, emboldened by the success of candidates who attacked quotas in the 1990 elections, think the issue could help them recapture the Senate in 1992.

The chance to capitalize on the politics of race explains why the Administration has been hardening its civil rights position even as the Democrats have been chasing a deal. "We're not about to get sucked into another 1,000 hours of negotiations," says a senior White House official. "If they want a bill, they can send us our bill."

The Administration has reason to be cocky. Business, once divided, now is dead set against a compromise. Under pressure from White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray, the Business Roundtable, comprising 200 of the largest corporations, has abandoned its search for common ground with civil rights leaders. Now the Fair Employment Coalition, an alliance of business groups, has adopted a take-no-prisoners strategy.

Last week, a dozen fence-sitting House members returned home to face radio and newspaper ads, paid for by the coalition, blasting the Democrats' "quota bill." And minutes after the Democrats offered their compromise, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the GOP's chief flamethrower, declared the measure "a desperate effort to design something that is no more than a fig leaf."

Gingrich isn't completely off base. The Democrats' new bill has problems. It tries to defuse the quota issue by stating that businesses won't be "encouraged, required, or permitted" to hire by the numbers. But there's no penalty for employers that resort to quotas, making the ban meaningless.

In addition, the quota ban could interfere with government efforts to monitor affirmative-action programs, under which the Labor Dept. requires government contractors to use numerical goals and timetables. Democrats would also outlaw the adjustment of test scores to give minority job applicants a leg up. But that means the bill would, in effect, forbid the procedures used by most state employment services to place minority workers.

LOYALTY. Democratic leaders have postponed a floor vote until some of these issues can be resolved. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) predicts the new bill will get at least the 273 votes garnered by the vetoed 1990 bill. But he needs a dozen more votes to veto-proof the measure. Party leaders need 67 votes in the Senate, where Southern Democrats face tough reelection battles. Predicts Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.): "A veto will be sustained easily. We're going to pick up some Democrats this time around."

The Democrats have backed down enough to win decisive margins in both houses. Holding a two-thirds majority in the face of a full-court White House press to make a veto stick will be tougher. But with Democrats determined to show loyalty to their civil rights constituency, and with the White House looking for a hot-button election issue, neither rational debate nor compromise appears in the cards.

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