Democrats and Republicans offered conflicting visions of equal opportunity Tuesday as the House moved toward a political showdown with President Bush over civil rights legislation. After a contentious, day-long debate, the Democratic-controlled House defeated both a version of the legislation backed by women's groups and the Congressional Black Caucus and a Republican alternative. Members are to vote today on the most popular version, which is backed by the Democratic leadership.
The main question is not whether the leadership version will pass but whether it will garner the two-thirds vote needed to override a threatened presidential veto. Ralph Neas, director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said some still-undecided lawmakers left the outcome in doubt.
The Democratic legislation, titled the Civil Rights and Women's Equity in Employment Act of 1991, seeks to reverse the effect of several recent Supreme Court rulings making it more difficult for plaintiffs to win discrimination lawsuits against employers.
Democratic supporters cast it as one more step in the long, halting march toward equal rights that began with the Civil War and extended through the movement led three decades ago by Martin Luther King Jr. But Republican opponents insisted the legislation would compel hiring quotas for minorities and reverse discrimination against whites in ways that repudiate King's vision of a color-blind society.
Rep. Jack Brooks, D-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, assailed Bush and the GOP for "demagoguery" and "intellectual bankruptcy" in opposing the Democratic-sponsored legislation. Though the legislation contains a provision declaring quotas illegal, Bush has continued to denounce it as a "quota bill."
"All we offer is equal justice," declared House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo. "We say no to guarantees. We say no to quotas. But we say yes to equality and opportunity for all."
"The scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in American society," added Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., recalling his days as a student participant in the Freedom Rides through the Deep South in the 1960s. "This bill will send a strong message that discrimination will not be tolerated."
But Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., leader of the GOP opposition, contended that the Democratic bill would merely enrich lawyers for disgruntled workers and have the effect of "tribalizing, Balkanizing our society."
By permitting statistical disparities in the employment of different groups to serve as evidence of discrimination, Hyde added, the Democratic bill would "force employers to hire by the numbers" and "institutionalize color, ethnic and gender preference under the false flag of civil rights."
"There are quotas in the Democratic proposal," insisted Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla.
For all the inflammatory rhetoric, there are similarities between the two parties' proposals. Both would ban "race-norming," the practice of adjusting the results of employment test scores to help blacks and Hispanics get jobs. Like the Democratic bill, the GOP alternative sponsored by House Minority Leader Robert Michel, R-Ill., and backed by the White House would also require companies to justify employment practices that lead to statistical "underrepresentation" of minority groups.
Where they differ is that the GOP proposal makes it easier for the company to justify the employment practice in question as a "business necessity." The Democratic leadership bill requires companies to meet a tougher standard by proving that its practices bear a "significant and manifest relationship" to effective performance on the job.
The Democratic proposal also would permit women for the first time to win punitive damages for sexual harassment in the workplace; as a concession to attract votes from moderate and conservative lawmakers, the Democratic leadership version would cap those damages at $150,000. The White House-backed proposal contains no provision for damages.
From both sides, however, came charges that the debate was less about legislative details than about political symbolism.
"I don't think the substance has a great deal to do with it," acknowledged Eddie Mahe, a Republican political consultant.
Mahe said the Democrats' principal motivation is rallying black voters behind the party's bid to maintain control of the Senate in the 1992 elections. Democratic pollster Mark Mellman countered that Bush is seeking to ensure his own re-election by consolidating recent GOP gains among blue-collar whites who fear they would suffer from government attempts to aid minorities.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll demonstrates how starkly the races are divided on affirmative action. Some 86 percent of black respondents said they think minorities suffer employment discrimination, while 54 percent of whites disagreed. Sixty-four percent of blacks said minorities should receive hiring preferences to make up for past discrimination, while 88 percent of whites opposed such preferences.
Neas, the civil rights lobbyist, said the Democratic leadership proposal would garner more than the 273 votes a similar bill received last year, only to be vetoed by Bush. But he declined to predict whether supporters could pull together the 290 votes needed to override another veto.
On the other side of the Capitol, meanwhile, a group of GOP senators led by John Danforthof Missouri continued attempts to forge a compromise that congressional Democrats and the White House could agree on.