GOP Senators Seek to Stay Course on Race Issues

Times Staff Writer

Key Republican senators, looking beyond the Trent Lott debacle, urged President Bush and the GOP on Sunday to steer a continued conservative course on civil rights -- including opposing “quotas and preferences” in a pending affirmative action case in the Supreme Court and renominating U.S. District Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. of Mississippi to a federal appellate court.

In a round of television interviews, Republican leaders said the GOP should not switch directions on civil rights after Lott’s decision Friday to resign as Senate Republican leader because of comments that seemed to endorse segregation.

The issue of race has split Republicans and Democrats for more than two decades.

While Democrats have supported affirmative action plans that give an edge to blacks and Latinos, Republicans have opposed giving an explicit advantage to minorities.


“I don’t believe that Republicans are going to start endorsing quotas and preferences,” Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the incoming Senate majority whip, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“The president has done a terrific job of reaching out to ... African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans. We think we’ve got a good record that can be sold to those voters.”

Senate Republicans plan to elect Bill Frist, a heart surgeon from Tennessee, as their new leader during a conference call this afternoon.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) described Frist as offering “a different face” and a “more moderate approach to things.”


But on ABC’s “This Week,” Hatch denounced as “pure b.s.” the “attitude that only Democrats care about minorities.... I think every Republican is working hard to try and be good to minorities and do what’s right. But we can’t support some of the far-left, extreme approaches toward race.”

Hatch strongly urged the Bush administration to file a brief in two cases, to be argued before the Supreme Court in March, opposing the race-based admissions policy at the University of Michigan.

“It’s one of the most important issues of the day, and the administration should weigh in on it,” said Hatch, who will chair the Judiciary Committee when the 108th Congress is sworn in next month.

“Affirmative action is good if its consists of outreach ... and opportunity programs,” he said, but not “if it amounts to quotas.”

University of Michigan officials say they give “bonus” points to all minority applicants but set no fixed quota. The Center for Individual Rights, a conservative law firm in Washington, is challenging these “racial preferences” as a violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws.

The White House does not have to take a stand in the Supreme Court case, but several Republican senators said they hoped the administration would use the opportunity to clarify its position.

“I would say the president has a very tough decision to make,” said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” He described “traditional affirmative action approaches” as “racially divisive. What the president’s talked about is equal opportunity and using other kinds of things to get away from quotas and focus more on opportunity.”

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), on the same program, said Lott lost support among his Republican colleagues when he endorsed affirmative action in an interview Monday night on Black Entertainment Television.


It was “disavowing the conservative approach,” Inhofe said. “This affirmative action thing that they talk about, I find it to be insulting.... Different standards for different people are not just un-American. It’s immoral.”

The Republican senators said they favored the renomination of Pickering to the U.S. appeals court in New Orleans. Last year, in a Democrat-controlled Senate, Pickering’s nomination was defeated in the Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote of 10 to 9.

“He was very badly treated,” Hatch said. “I think he deserves renomination.”

Pickering’s hearing focused on a series of incidents involving race. In the 1960s, he testified against an imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a stand that Republicans said showed his courage.

But the Democrats revealed that as a federal trial judge in 1994, Pickering secretly pressed prosecutors to go along with an unusually lenient sentence for a man convicted of burning a cross outside the home of mixed-race couple. He and two other white men also fired a bullet at the house, narrowly missing the couple’s baby.

Pickering called the incident a “drunken prank” and refused to impose a seven-year prison term set by federal sentencing guidelines. He ultimately gave the man a 27-month prison sentence.

The Democrats were also chafing because three of President Clinton’s nominees -- one black and two Latinos -- were blocked by the Republicans for the same appeals court seat that was sought for Pickering.

McConnell, who will be the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, said the furor over Lott’s comments will not prove to have a lasting effect.


“In the long sweep of American history, this is going to be a blip,” he said. “I think this will present no handicap whatsoever in our ongoing effort to convince the nonwhite citizens of our country that the Republican Party is the place to be.”

For his part, Lott told Associated Press on Sunday that he had only himself to blame for his fall from the Senate leadership, but he noted that “there are people in Washington who have been trying to nail me for a long time.”

“When you’re from Mississippi and you’re a conservative and you’re a Christian, there are a lot of people that don’t like that,” Lott said. “I fell into their trap and so I have only myself to blame.” He would not identify his political enemies.