White House staffers are accused of 'sabotaging' civil rights measure

October 13, 1990|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- Members of the civil rights community accused White House staffers yesterday of "sabotaging" compromise efforts on the landmark civil-rights bill.

They released a memo, signed by White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, which suggested language that would provide employers with a new defense to use against charges of job discrimination.

Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh wrote the Senate yesterday, saying President Bush "will be compelled" to veto the bill despite the last-minute changes adopted Thursday night.

A key change made Thursday by the House-Senate conferees would offer employers greater leeway in defending against discrimination suits. It also would make clear that nothing in the bill was designed to encourage the use of hiring quotas.

But the changes failed to overcome White House objections. "We still believe this is a quota bill," presidential press secretary Marlin Fitzwater told reporters. "We continue to believe a veto is warranted on that basis."

Mr. Bush contends the measure will lead employers to use race- and sex-based quotas, although the bill specifically states it should not be interpreted to do so. The president repeatedly has threatened to veto the bill.

The bill, designed to strengthen protections against job discrimination, goes to Congress for final consideration next week. The Senate is expected to take up the bill first, perhaps as soon as Monday, Capitol Hill aides said.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, an umbrella organization of civil rights groups, released a copy of the latest White House proposal, the memo signed by Mr. Sununu.

It was sent Sept. 21 to the bill's principal Senate sponsor, Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

That proposal would allow employers to defend discriminatory job practices on grounds the practices were prompted by "community or customer relationship efforts."

" 'Customer relations' was the code word used by airlines to restrict flight-attendant jobs to young, single women," conference director Ralph Neas said. "The administration's proposal could allow law firms, banks and other employers to bar blacks or Jews or Catholics from certain jobs because customers prefer not to deal with them.

"In short, while publicly proclaiming a willingness to engage in good-faith negotiations, Mr. Sununu and Mr. [C. Boyden] Gray have met every effort to compromise with new and regressive demands," Mr. Neas said. Mr. Gray is counsel to the president.

"Nonsense," White House spokesman Steve Hart replied. "We have been trying to work with the Hill to come up with a non-quota bill, and we'd like to see a bill come to the president's desk that he can sign. Mr. Thornburgh's letter outlines our objections to the bill's current form."

The letter, to Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., said that the changes made Thursday "do not offer substantial improvement; indeed, in some respects they make the bill worse."

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