House Democratic leaders said Wednesday that they plan to make key concessions on the civil rights bill, including a cap of $150,000 on punitive damages for victims of sex discrimination and sexual harassment.
Details of the compromise were being worked out in intensive backstage negotiations in hopes of achieving a veto-proof majority when the House takes up the controversial bill later this month.
Democratic strategists said that their main goal is to shore up support for the bill among Southern conservatives in their party and moderate Republicans, even though the proposed cap is strongly opposed by women's organizations and some House liberals.
Another aim is to blunt Bush Administration charges that the measure amounts to a "quota bill" that would compel business firms to hire racial minorities to avoid being sued successfully for employment discrimination.
The bill would reverse a half-dozen recent Supreme Court decisions that limit workers' challenges to job bias. It would also, for the first time, allow women to sue under federal law for damages for sexual harassment in the workplace or other discriminatory practices.
House passage of the civil rights legislation is assured, but the margin of victory has become all-important to persuade the Senate to move ahead with the bill this summer and to heighten the prospects for overriding an expected veto.
If proponents can muster a two-thirds majority in favor of the bill in the House, it would significantly improve chances for enacting the measure over the objections of President Bush.
To do so, however, advocates would have to get 288 votes, or 16 more than the 272 House members who voted for a similar civil rights bill last year. Bush vetoed that measure, and the Senate sustained his action by a single vote.
House Majority Whip William H. Gray III (D-Pa.) said that his party's leadership would seek several amendments to the legislation as the House Judiciary Committee and the Education and Labor panel work on it.
One amendment would incorporate changes tentatively agreed on by representatives of civil rights groups and members of the Business Roundtable, a private group of the nation's 200 largest corporations, Gray suggested.
Another amendment, he said, would limit punitive damages to $150,000 in cases of intentional sex discrimination but would authorize unlimited compensation for actual, out-of-pocket losses of victims.
This concession drew fire from Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who said that it would establish a double standard, because victims of intentional racial discrimination now are allowed to collect unlimited punitive damages in court cases.