The Gop Assault On Affirmative Action Is Getting Serious

For two years, conservative Republicans in Congress have had affirmative action programs in their crosshairs. But GOP leaders haven't pulled the trigger for fear of sparking a backlash among Republican women and scaring away minorities that the party has been trying to court.

But now, emboldened by the Supreme Court's Nov. 3 decision that lets stand California's antipreference initiative, Republicans are making the controversial issue a top priority for 1998. The centerpiece is a bill co-sponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Representative Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.) that would jettison race- and gender-based preferences in 160 programs. Passage of the measure would mean an end to rules forcing Corporate America to set goals for hiring minorities and women as a condition for winning government contracts. Also targeted: special advantages for companies owned by women and minorities when they bid on federal contracts.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) argues that it's wrong for government to be "picking winners and losers based on arbitrary quotas and set-asides." Hatch agrees, which is why he sought on Nov. 4 to derail the nomination of affirmative-action defender Bill Lann Lee, President Clinton's pick for civil-rights chief at the Justice Dept.

"WEDGE" ISSUE. Republicans are convinced that most voters see affirmative action as reverse discrimination--making for a perfect "wedge" issue to split the Democratic coalition. They hope to appeal to Reagan Democrats, who have been slowly moving back to the Democratic column after a long flirtation with the GOP. Although voters in Houston on Nov. 4 refused to end a set-aside program for city contractors, momentum is building in Colorado, Florida, Ohio, and Washington State to follow the example of California, which passed Proposition 209, its broad assault on preferences, a year ago.

To inoculate themselves against charges of racism, Republicans are offering alternatives that they say would help minorities get ahead without relying on preferences. Examples: vouchers that let inner-city kids attend private or religious schools and streamlined rules at the state and local level that would make it easier for urban minorities to start small businesses and get trade licenses.

Trouble is, such programs may not give the GOP enough cover. Democrats concede that there is strong public support for ending reverse discrimination but not for scrapping affirmative-action initiatives that level the playing field for women and minorities. "The Republicans think they have a hot-button issue, but most people disagree with them," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "The Houston vote signals that this is not a slam-dunk."

The GOP also could turn off members of its own constituency--women Republicans and corporate executives. Joann Payne, a lobbyist who represents women-owned road-construction companies, says affirmative action has swelled her group from 20 to 12,000 since 1980. "Most of these women are Republicans, and they're irritated at their party," Payne says. And Corporate America believes compliance with affirmative-action programs is a good defense against antidiscrimination lawsuits. Besides, execs argue that diversity is good for the bottom line.

Despite the political dangers, the GOP's conservative wing has run out of patience. And party leaders are desperate for an issue the Dems won't co-opt. That's why "End affirmative action" will be a Republican rallying cry in '98.

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