WASHINGTON -- Civil rights leaders, devastated over President Bush's veto of the proposed Civil Rights Act of 1990, said yesterday that they are determined to press again for its adoption by Congress next year -- by a margin large enough to withstand another veto.
A congressional effort to override Mr. Bush's veto of the current bill is regarded likely to fall short by a slim margin.
"It was a terrible fight to lose," said the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, chairman of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the 180-organization coalition that led the lobbying for the current bill. "We'll just have to start all over again."
But as much as civil rights leaders were in despair over Mr. Bush's veto, they expressed even greater despair -- and, in some cases, anger -- over what they believed the president's action had to say about his overall civil rights policy.
For more than a year, ever since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a series of decisions the civil rights establishment regarded as undermining existing laws against discrimination in employment, the enactment of legislation rolling back those decisions has been the top priority of civil rights leaders.
And for the same amount of time, civil rights leaders have warily awaited Mr. Bush's stance on such legislation as the first test of his overall civil rights policy since his election.
The veto, to most civil rights leaders, was the test. Mr. Bush said that he could not approve the proposed Civil Rights Act because it would permit or induce employers to resort to hiring by quotas to avoid lawsuits and that he would never sign a "quota bill."
It was only the third veto of a civil rights bill in history; Andrew Johnson and Ronald Reagan cast the others.
In August, after Mr. Bush delivered a speech before the National Urban League in which he promised to "make America open and equal to all," the Rev. Joseph P. Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said: "We heard Mr. Bush say the right words. Now he must turn on the music and dance with me."
Yesterday, Mr. Lowery said bitterly: "We don't have to read his lips anymore. His lips have spoken loud and clear."
Roger Wilkins, a civil rights activist and history professor at George Mason University who characterizes himself as a liberal Democrat, described Mr. Bush's veto as "purely political" and an act of "absolute, utter cynicism."
"I think we're in terrible shape," Mr. Wilkins said. "Right now, the bad guys have the momentum."
Several leaders said the strategy for seeking enactment of the vetoed civil rights bill failed to emphasize that it was "not just a black bill," as one of them put it, but would have covered the employment rights of women, Hispanics and the disabled, among others.
"The people around Mr. Bush didn't make clear to him its implications," said Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women. "I think he just has the wrong palace guard."
Milton Bins, chairman of the National Black Republican Civil Rights Task Force, which lobbied for the proposed Civil Rights Act under the umbrella of the Leadership Conference, was asked what should happen next.
"We don't give up. We regroup," he replied. "We figure out how to get the votes we need in the next Congress."
Civil rights leaders left no doubt that a bill similar to the one Mr. Bush vetoed will be reintroduced in Congress next year, when it is likely to vie for approval with an alternative to the vetoed measure which the president sent to Capitol Hill Monday.
But leaders are not betting that Mr. Bush will change his mind the next time around; they are hoping that this November's elections will change the makeup of Congress just enough that a veto next time would be overridden.
And none of the leaders is optimistic about this possibility. "With a 98 percent incumbency rate in the House," said one, "there isn't much space for change."
Beyond that, said one activist who asked not to be identified, "It will be time to think about a change at the White House."