WASHINGTON -- The Senate narrowly sustained President Bush's veto of a major civil rights bill yesterday, the first time Congress has failed to override any veto of a civil rights bill.
The 66-34 vote fell one short of the two-thirds majority needed to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1990, which was intended to strengthen protections against job discrimination. It was Mr. Bush's 16th successful veto.
All 55 Senate Democrats and 11 Republicans voted to override. One Republican, Sen. Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota, who had originally voted against the bill, said he switched his vote after he saw David Duke sitting in the balcony. "I couldn't vote against it with him there," Mr. Boschwitz said.
Mr. Duke, a Republican state legislator from Louisiana, is a former member of the Ku Klux Klan who earlier this month won 44 percent of the vote in a race for a U.S. Senate seat. "I came to Washington to lobby against this bill," Mr. Duke said.
At the White House, spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said President Bush was "pleased" that his veto was sustained. "We urge Congress to take speedy action on the president's alternative proposal so that we may have a true civil rights bill," Mr. Fitzwater said.
But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the bill's principal sponsor, said Mr. Bush's proposed legislation was "a sham."
"You can't compromise with discrimination, and that's what the president was trying to do," Mr. Kennedy said.
The bill, introduced in February with bipartisan support in both houses, would have rolled back several 1989 Supreme Court decisions that make it more difficult for women and minorities to win job-discrimination lawsuits. It also included a provision that for the first time would have let women seek compensatory and punitive damages in claims of intentional discrimination.
Mr. Bush said Monday that he vetoed the measure because it would lead employers to adopt hiring quotas based on sex and race, despite language in the bill stating that it should not be interpreted to do so.
Only two other presidents have vetoed a civil rights bill: Andrew Johnson and Ronald Reagan. Both those vetoes were overridden by large majorities.