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 the 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 Hawkins, D-Calif., said he was 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 62-34 and the House 273-154.
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, pointing out that the president was willing to veto an entire 30-page bill over a few highly technical phrases in one section.
The bill sought to overturn six Supreme Court decisions that have hampered workers who sue over alleged discrimination on the job. The bill would have made wide changes in anti-discrimination laws, for example allowing victims of sex discrimination and religious discrimination to collect money damages from employers, which they cannot now do under federal law. It would also have prohibited racial harassment on the job.
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 Bush's own appointee as head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, denied that, pointing out that the bill was repeatedly watered down because of Bush's objections.
Many backers of the bill bitterly denounced Bush's action. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who had led the fight for the bill in the Senate, called Bush's move "tragic and disgraceful."
Marcia Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center, said the veto showed "complete and callous indifference to working women."
But although White House aides expect political damage, particularly among black voters to whom Bush and the Republican party had been trying to appeal, 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."
In the end, many aides argued that Bush, who had been widely criticized by Republican conservatives on Capitol Hill for giving in to Democrats on the budget, this time simply had to take a strong conservative stand and stick with it.
"He did what he said he was going to do," a White House aide said. "That has to help."