WASHINGTON -- President Bush took on the political burden yesterday of vetoing a major civil rights bill, choosing to avoid what he called the greater evil of imposing racial, gender and ethnic quotas in the workplace.
"The temptation to support a bill -- any bill -- simply because its title includes the words 'civil rights' is very strong," Mr. Bush acknowledged in his veto message to Congress. "But when our efforts, however well-intentioned, result in quotas, equal opportunity is not advanced but thwarted."
Some proponents of the measure immediately pledged to throw their resources into a veto override attempt, which will begin in the Senate, probably today.
"This is a matter of grave national concern not only to minorities and women, but to every American citizen who believes in fairness," said the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Mr. Bush's decision pits him against the entire civil rights community and many moderates in his own party. But it aligns him with the business establishment, the GOP right wing and many working-class Democrats who are believed to be resentful of anything that smacks of special treatment for certain groups.
"He has made a real effort to reach out to the black community, and this will obviously stall that effort," said Frank Donatelli, a GOP consultant who served as White House political director under President Ronald Reagan. "But I think it sends a positive signal to many middle- and working-class Americans that make up the core of the Republican coalition."
For the override to succeed, it will have to muster more votes in both houses than the legislation drew on the roll call for final passage. It takes a two-thirds majority in each house to override a presidential veto.
Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, D-Calif., the prime House sponsor of the civil rights legislation, said he would not even ask for an override vote unless he were confident of winning. "I'm just not going to waste any more time," Mr. Hawkins said, warning that civil rights forces might even lose support in an override fight.
If an override attempt fails, Mr. Bush's veto would almost certainly doom until next year the legislation's chief goal of restoring and expanding protections against job bias that were weakened by six U.S. Supreme Court decisions last year.
The president argued that those truly interested in enacting a civil rights bill quickly support an alternative proposal he sent to Capitol Hill on Saturday.
But legislative leaders say there is little likelihood of that or any other substitute's being enacted into law before Congress adjourns in the next week or so.
The problem is more philosophical than mechanical. Despite efforts to compromise that continued into last weekend, the two sides remain locked in positions on several key points they say are too far apart for the gulf to be breached.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., another prime sponsor of the vetoed bill, called Mr. Bush's alternative "a sham" submitted simply to soften the political impact of his veto.
Specifically at issue is some complex legal terminology that dictates how job discrimination cases would be handled in court.
Supporters of the bill, such as Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., argued that the legislation would close some "loopholes" created by the court. Those include shifting the burden of proof in discrimination cases back to employers from the alleged victims and narrowing the circumstances for which employers could claim that disparate impacts of their personnel policies on women or minorities were justified by "business necessity."
But Mr. Bush relied upon the legal interpretation, offered by Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh and White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, that the legislation would put so heavy a burden on employers to defend themselves against potentially high damage awards that they would voluntarily apply quotas in hiring and promotions simply to avoid the risk.