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White House Eases Off Threat to Veto Major Civil Rights Bill

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The White House began backing away Monday from a veto threat against a major piece of civil rights legislation now before Congress.

Changes in the bill are “moving in the right direction” White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said shortly before President Bush met with a coalition of civil rights leaders. “The President would like to sign a civil rights bill,” he added.

In fact, Administration officials earlier this month had downplayed the changes that Fitzwater touted Monday. The officials had told key members of Congress that the amendments were not sufficient to bring Administration support for the bill. But the veto threat issued last month by Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh has put the White House in a politically difficult position and Bush has become increasingly eager to find a face-saving compromise.

“If you don’t have the votes, there’s not a lot you can do,” said one Administration official who opposes the bill. Very few members of Congress are willing to go on record as opposing a civil rights measure, the official noted, and “it obviously will be very difficult to veto.”

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The bill will be a “litmus test” for Bush’s commitment to civil rights, NAACP President Benjamin L. Hooks said after meeting with the President.

The bill in question would reverse several major Supreme Court decisions that significantly weakened federal laws barring racial discrimination on the job. It also would significantly expand at least one aspect of the job discrimination laws.

Business groups say that it would greatly increase the costs of complying with anti-discrimination laws and could lead to quota systems. Civil rights groups deny that, saying the bill is needed to restore protections.

At his hour-long meeting with heads of several major black organizations, Bush asked that civil rights groups send a team of lawyers to meet with Justice Department officials to work out compromise language. Black leaders who attended the meeting left in high spirits. Bush plans similar meetings Wednesday with leaders of organizations representing women, disabled persons, religious minorities and Latinos.

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“We’re optimistic” about the chances of working out a deal, said John Jacobs of Black Leadership Forum.

“Everyone really wants to be on the same side,” said Thaddeus Garrett, a Washington consultant and former Bush aide.

Some hard bargaining will be necessary, however.

“There is a tremendous gap” that remains between what the Administration has supported so far and what civil rights leaders want, said Drew Days III, a former assistant attorney general for civil rights who now teaches at Yale Law School and who attended the meeting.

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The legislation sponsored by Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Los Angeles) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), would cover five major civil rights issues. So far, the Administration has been willing to discuss only two of them and on those two issues has taken a far more restricted position than the civil rights groups support.

The most controversial involves employment practices such as screening tests or hiring standards that have the effect of reducing minority employment, even if they were not intended to do so.

Under federal law, those practices are illegal unless there is a “business necessity” for them. Since 1971, the employer has had the burden of proving that the practice under challenge is necessary for a nondiscriminatory reason. But in a major case last year, the Supreme Court said that it would now be up to plaintiffs to prove the practice was not necessary. That burden is far more difficult for plaintiffs to meet.

The bill would reverse that ruling, but business groups and civil rights lawyers have been deadlocked in trying to redefine how the “business necessity” defense should work. If the defense is not strong enough, business organizations say, the only safe practice will be to hire by quota to ensure that suits will not be brought.

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