Opening an affirmative action debate that promises to resonate in the presidential campaign, a House committee endorsed Republican legislation Thursday that would prohibit race- or gender-based preferences in all federal actions, from hiring to granting federal aid or contracts.
The action marked the first time since Republicans regained control of Congress that the GOP has moved to revamp programs intended to help women and minorities overcome the effects of discrimination.
Although the bill is expected to face stiff opposition on the floor of both the House and the Senate, it has wide and powerful backing--including 93 House co-sponsors. House leaders have vowed to bring it to the floor for a vote by this summer.
The primary sponsor in the Senate is Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. There is no schedule for Senate action on the bill.
Angry House Democrats on Thursday denounced the measure, saying that it would gut affirmative action programs and reverse gains made by women and minorities in the last two decades. They charged that language in the measure outlawing any "numerical goal, timetable or numerical objective" would even mean killing programs that encourage, but do not require, the hiring of women and minorities--programs that traditionally have enjoyed bipartisan support.
'This is a substantial departure from the law as it exists today," said Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.). "It goes well, well, well beyond the law."
But backers of the bill said that numerical goals or objectives set and pursued by the government eventually become hard and fast quotas.
Led by Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.), Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee's Constitution subcommittee held off all amendments and voted, 8 to 5, along party lines to send the Equal Opportunity Act of 1996 on for consideration by the full panel.
"This is a system which is based on the belief that . . . to overcome discrimination, we must practice discrimination," Canady said of the programs his bill would affect. "That perverse logic has created a system that undermines the fundamental values it was intended to protect."
The action came as the Clinton administration began circulating a draft of new rules governing the award of federal contracts to female- and minority-owned firms.
The guidelines would require firms bidding for contracts under affirmative action programs to prove that past discrimination had kept minority and female participation below expected levels in their region or industry.
The rules are designed to ensure that some of the federal government's most legally questionable affirmative action programs meet new standards set out by the Supreme Court last June. They are part of President Clinton's bid to "mend, not end" affirmative action programs.
Speaking for the administration, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno said Thursday that the Canady-Dole bill "fails to recognize that we still have got to do something to correct these historical vestiges" of racial and gender discrimination.
In an interview with The Times after the committee vote, Canady complained that Democrats on the committee denied that the government currently forces adherence to goals, timetables and objectives. He cited polls that show large majorities of Americans disapprove of "preferences" and thus should support his bill.
"It's very clear what we're doing," Canady said. "We're prohibiting the use of gender and race preferences in federal hiring and contracting decisions and the administration of federal programs. Opponents want to divert attention from that fact. They are committed to preserving the status quo."
Canady said he is optimistic about passage of the bill in the House, predicting that "we'll be able to pass the bill with a respectable margin." But Ralph Neas, a longtime civil rights lawyer, scoffed at such predictions, saying that there is a substantial bipartisan consensus in opposition to the Canady-Dole bill in both the House and Senate.
Neas said that the GOP leadership ultimately would shy away from legislation that effectively eliminates "affirmative action entirely from the federal government," because the opposition of minorities and women will be powerful.
"This is an issue that could easily backfire on those who support this bill," Neas said Thursday.