The civil rights debate shifted to the Senate on Wednesday after the Democratic-controlled House passed anti-discrimination legislation but failed to muster enough votes to override a threatened presidential veto. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell pledged prompt action after the House voted 273-158 in favor of the civil rights bill proposed by Democratic leaders. But the key to final passage may rest less with the House bill than with the efforts of Republican moderates to fashion a compromise acceptable both to Democrats and President Bush.
Led by Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., the GOP senators have proposed dividing action into three parts that together would reverse the effect of recent Supreme Court decisions making it tougher for minorities and women to win discrimination lawsuits against employers, and allow women for the first time to collect money damages for workplace discrimination.
Damages for pain and suffering would be limited, however, to $50,000 against a business with fewer than 100 employees and $150,000 against larger companies.
Danforth says he seeks a middle ground because "civil rights should not be fodder for partisan cannons." But the heavy guns have been firing all week, as Bush accused civil rights groups of attempting to "grind me into the political dirt" and Democrats in turn claimed the president is dividing Americans by race to boost his re-election.
Notwithstanding the acrimony, House Republicans offered to join compromise talks. Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., who led the opposition to the bill passed Wednesday, said Danforth's effort is "on the right track."
Civil rights lobbyists have expressed reservations about the GOP Senate compromise, however, citing the caps on damages for sex discrimination and the fact that splitting the bill into three parts increases the opportunity for filibuster by conservatives.
On Tuesday, the House rejected both a more sweeping anti-discrimination bill backed by black and women lawmakers and a limited version supported by the White House. The version passed Wednesday was modified by Democratic leaders to attract maximum support.
One section declares hiring quotas illegal, though Bush continues to threaten a veto on grounds that other provisions compel employers to use quotas.
For civil rights groups, Wednesday's vote was at best bittersweet. Though the legislation won by a lopsided margin for the second straight year, supporters were unable to improve upon their final 1990 vote total, falling well short of the two-thirds needed to override a Bush veto.
White House lobbying against the bill limited the number of Republicans supporting it to 22, compared to 34 last year. One Florida Republican, Rep. Craig James of Deland, was among those who switched sides to oppose the bill Wednesday.
(The only Florida Republican to support the Democratic leadership proposal was Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami. The only Florida Democrat who failed to support it was Rep. Earl Hutto of Panama City.)
An equally fervent lobbying campaign by supporters was unable to convert many conservative Democrats who would be needed to override a White House veto.
"The civil rights bill before this body is not the right bill," said Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas. He complained that the threat of lawsuits under the Democratic leadership proposal would have "a chilling effect" on legitimate employment practices.
Ralph Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, attacked Bush for "acting beneath the dignity of his office" and using "The Big Lie" in opposing the legislation.
"When George Bush became president . . . we had high hopes in the civil rights community," Neas said. "Those high hopes have been crushed. George Bush has had a miserable record on issues of race and discrimination. What the White House wants is a political issue to demagogue."
Still, Neas insisted that the Civil Rights and Women's Equity in Employment Act "will be law by the end of this summer." House Speaker Thomas Foley, predicting that "strong" legislation will emerge from the Senate, said he remained hopeful that Bush might sign the final legislation produced by a House-Senate compromise.
"We believe there ought to be a civil rights bill passed into law," House GOP Whip Newt Gingrich added later. "Let's write a civil rights bill the president will sign."
How they voted
WASHINGTON _ The House approved a Democratic-sponsored civil rights bill by a 273-158 vote Wednesday.
Voting yes to approve the bill were 251 Democrats and 22 Republicans. Voting no were 15 Democrats and 143 Republicans.
Here is how Florida representatives voted.
Democrats _ Bacchus, Y; Bennett, Y; Fascell, Y; Gibbons, Y; Hutto, N; Johnston, Y; Lehman, Y; Peterson, Y; Smith, Y.
Republicans _ Bilirakis, N; Goss, N; Ireland, N; James, N; Lewis, N; McCollum, N; Ros-Lehtinen, Y; Shaw, N; Stearns, N; Young, N.