House passes civil rights bill veto expected

October 18, 1990|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The SunWashington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON ARCH PARSONS OF THE SUN'S WASHINGTON BUREAU CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — WASHINGTON -- As if things weren't going badly enough with the budget crisis and threat of war in the Persian Gulf, President Bush awoke this morning to face the prospect of another jolt to his popularity from his anticipated veto of a major civil rights bill.

After months of negotiations with the White House that ultimately failed, the House followed the Senate's lead yesterday by giving final approval to a measure designed to combat discrimination in the workplace by making it easier for victims to get their grievances addressed.

The 273-154 House tally provided supporters with a comfortable margin of victory, but like the 62-34 Senate vote of Tuesday night, it fell slightly short of the two-thirds necessary to override a veto.

All members of the Maryland House delegation except Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd, voted in favor of the bill.

Despite what he has described as a lifelong interest in civil rights, Mr. Bush is committed to rejecting this bill. He says none of the last-minute changes made over the past week resolve his fears that it would force employers to adopt quota systems.

The veto could come as early as today, accompanied by a draft of legislation that the White House considers more acceptable, officials said.

But there is little chance that a new version of the measure could be adopted before Congress adjourns.

Thus, less than three weeks before the congressional and state elections, Mr. Bush is poised to alienate categories of voters that include women, blacks and Hispanics as well as the disabled, the elderly and other potential victims of job bias.

"A veto would send a most distressing message to millions of Americans, and this will be exacerbated in this time of crisis that we all face in the [Persian] Gulf, and with the budget and other domestic issues," the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said in a telegram urging Mr. Bush to sign the bill.

Marcia Greenberger, managing attorney for the National Women's Law Center, added: "President Bush's veto of this landmark bill would be a slap in the face of every working person in this country. . . . He will demonstrate the worst and most callous indifference towards the millions of women and minorities who must struggle to make a living to support their families."

The Bush administration argues that it has gone to great lengths to avoid such a veto, acknowledging the political problems it poses for the president and possibly to Republican candidates.

Direct negotiations with key legislators have been under way since June, and a series of civil rights groups has been summoned for much-heralded consultations with Mr. Bush in the White House.

But even prominent blacks within the administration, including Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, Health and Human Services secretary; Constance B. Newman, director of the Office of Personnel Management; and Arthur A. Fletcher, chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, could make no headway against White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu.

"There are some people who just don't want civil rights laws to have any enforcement provisions," said Mr. Fletcher, referring to Mr. Sununu and "the whole conservative element."

The legislation would restore and expand upon several civil rights protections struck down last year by the U.S. Supreme Court. One of the most controversial provisions shifts the burden of proof in job discrimination cases back to the employer from the plaintiff and provides for punitive as well as compensatory damages.

Mr. Sununu and other White House staff members argue that small businesses in particular would be so intimated by the prospect of having to defend themselves against such lawsuits and large damage awards that they would voluntarily employ racial, gender and other quotas in their business decisions.

Mr. Sununu suggested that employers be allowed to defend themselves against charges of discriminatory practices on the grounds that they were necessary for "community or customer relationship efforts" -- a phrase attacked by House Democrats yesterday as a throwback to the segregation of the 1950s.

Provisions of civil rights bill

The civil rights bill approved yesterday by the House:

* Bans intentional discrimination in employment practices on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin under all circumstances.

* Restores burden of proof to employers to show that employment practices with an unintentional but disparate impact women and minorities are required by business necessity.

* Authorizes compensatory and punitive damages in sex discrimination cases. A $150,000 limit on punitive damages is imposed in all job discrimination cases, but a plaintiff could receive unlimited compensatory damages and relief, such as back pay.

* Prohibits racial discrimination in all aspects of a private contract, including enforcement and performance.

* Stipulates that the law shall not be interpreted to require or encourage hiring or promotion quotas, and that the mere existance of a statistical imbalance is not enough to prove job bias.

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