Ending five months of on-again, off-again attempts at negotiations, President Bush on Monday vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990, almost certainly killing what civil rights leaders had called their No. 1 legislative priority.
Senate supporters of the bill plan to try to override Bush's veto today, but all sides concede that they have little chance of mustering the necessary two-thirds majority. The leading House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Los Angeles), said that he is inclined not to try a doomed override vote in his chamber.
"I'm just not going to waste any more time," Hawkins said. Earlier this month, the bill failed to win a two-thirds majority in either chamber, passing the Senate on a 62-34 vote, and the House by a 273-154 margin.
Bush said he was vetoing the bill because it would lead to quotas. But supporters of the legislation accused Bush of killing the measure to gain support among white conservatives, asserting that the President was willing to veto an entire 30-page bill over a few highly technical phrases in one section.
The measure would overturn six Supreme Court decisions that have hampered workers who sue over alleged discrimination on the job.
Under the bill, an employer whose hiring or promotion standards exclude racial minorities or women would have to prove, if sued, that its standards "bear a significant relationship to successful performance of the job."
It also would authorize victims of "intentional discrimination" to seek up to $150,000 in compensatory and punitive damages from an employer. Under current federal laws victims of racial discrimination may get such damages but victims of sexual, religious or national origin discrimination may only win reinstatement in their jobs or back pay.
The legislation also would provide that employers, both public and private, could not engage in "racial discrimination" in any aspect of employment. Employers would violate the law if an employee's race, sex, religion or national origin became "a motivating factor" in a hiring or promotion decision, according to the measure.
Complaining employees would have as long as two years to challenge a discriminatory change in a seniority plan, rather than the current 180 days, under the legislation, and disgruntled employees could not challenge in court a consent decree that settles a job bias case if they had "actual notice" in advance of proposed settlement.
California law already provides workers with many of the protections that the vetoed bill would have provided to workers nationwide.
But in the end, the few technical words in dispute were enough to sink the entire package, Bush said, insisting that they would "introduce the destructive force of quotas into our nation's employment system."
"I deeply regret having to take this action," Bush said in his veto message. "But when our efforts, however well-intentioned, result in quotas, equal opportunity is not advanced but thwarted."
Administration officials argued that the bill's standards would have been so tough to meet that quotas would be the only way a company could avoid lawsuits. But supporters of the bill, including Arthur A. Fletcher, Bush's own appointee as head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, rejected that argument, saying that the bill was repeatedly watered down to meet Bush's objections.
Many backers of the bill bitterly denounced Bush's action. Bush's move was "tragic and disgraceful," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who had led the fight for the bill in the Senate.
"When the chips are down, the White House is against civil rights," he said.
The veto, said Marcia D. Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center, showed "complete and callous indifference to working women."
White House aides, already rocked by two weeks of the pounding Bush has taken on the budget, have spent the last several days bracing themselves for renewed political attacks concerning civil rights.
Late last week, a senior aide who had counseled Bush to veto the bill, White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, privately told a key senator that he feared he might have to resign because of the difficult political position in which Bush has found himself on the issue. Monday, Gray insisted through a spokesman that he was "being facetious" when he made the remark.
But, although White House aides expect political damage, particularly among black voters that Bush and the Republican Party had been trying to woo, they also insisted that the President could gain politically by his stand.
"Quotas and affirmative action are not something the American people want or support," said one White House aide. "If the Democrats want to fight us on affirmative action or quotas, I'll take them on any time."
Moreover, said one Administration official, the veto "may help some among 'Reagan Democrats,' " the conservative, white voters whose support was key to Republican victories during the last three presidential elections.
"I don't think there were really a lot of black voters who were going to vote Republican before all this happened," the official added.
Republican strategists, already worried that lower-income white voters are drifting away from the GOP because of concern about the economy and taxes, grew even more nervous this fall when they saw former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke score heavily with exactly those kinds of voters in his Senate campaign in Louisiana. Duke's campaign was fueled primarily by attacks on "handouts" to minority groups.
Bush's aides had been split for months on how to handle the bill, with some advisers urging a compromise and others, primarily Gray and Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh, pushing for a hard-line stand.
Thornburgh and Gray originally argued that the six Supreme Court decisions the bill sought to overturn were correct and should be left alone. Bush rejected that position late last spring, directing Chief of Staff John H. Sununu to try to negotiate a compromise. But White House opponents of the bill, bolstered by business lobbyists, waged a determined and ultimately successful rear-guard action.
"There was a time Sununu wanted to make a deal," said one congressional source familiar with the lengthy negotiations over the bill. "There was never a time Thornburgh and Gray wanted a deal," he added.
At the same time, civil rights leaders, believing that they could muster the votes to override a veto, rejected compromises offered by the White House before this summer's vote. By the time the bill's supporters discovered that they had fewer votes than they had thought, White House opposition to the bill had hardened again.
Staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story.