WASHINGTON -- The White House is expected to mount a civil rights counteroffensive today by endorsing a concept of aid to minorities and the poor described as "empowerment" and by proposing its own civil rights legislation.
A Bush administration official avoided using the term "empowerment," apparently because the concept's rise to the level of official domestic policy has bruised the egos of some of President Bush's top aides, who weren't among the conceivers of the idea.
But the official did say that Mr. Bush would propose "a number of initiatives that logically go together under the heading of enhancing opportunities and choice."
That's what the empowerment concept, the brainchild of Republican conservatives inside and outside the White House, is about.
The thrust of empowerment, according to some of its principal authors, is to offer "opportunities and choice" to minorities and the disadvantaged in such areas as determining what schools their children will attend, selecting and managing their residences as tenants in public housing, working themselves off welfare, protecting their neighborhoods against crime and starting small businesses.
Mr. Bush, in a speech Monday in the White House East Room recognizing Black History Month, alluded to his forthcoming civil rights moves by saying that "we must write a new chapter in the history of civil rights, a chapter that says opportunity must replace despair."
And he seemed to be hinting at which empowerment elements his initiatives would cover by saying that "opportunity" means "education, equipping kids with the tools they need to compete in a new century.
"It means freedom from drugs . . . jobs . . . owning your own home and being safe in it . . . social programs to keep families together . . . and health care to keep them strong."
The empowerment proposals are regarded by their conservative designers as an essential weapon in a Bush administration counteroffensive on civil rights.
Mr. Bush's veto last year of a civil rights bill with large bipartisan congressional sponsorship and support -- sustained by only one vote in the Senate -- created a deep chasm between him and traditional leaders of the black and civil rights communities.
The veto also cost him the support of many congressional members of his own Republican Party, who simply were unable to stand with him, at least on the civil rights issue.
This year, a new bill, closely similar to the one Mr. Bush vetoed, has already been introduced on Capitol Hill, raising the possibility that he could be forced again to cast a veto.
But this time the bill's supporters, doubtful that it will ever meet the president's approval, are seeking to ensure that they have sufficient votes to override a veto.
In an effort to avoid this prospect, the administration is scheduled to propose this week, separately from its empowerment proposals, its own civil rights plan for consideration by Congress.
The empowerment proposals have emerged from a number of conservative sources.
Inside the White House, a lead role in their conception has been played by James P. Pinkerton, deputy assistant to the president for policy planning.
Mr. Pinkerton has become media-shy recently, but in an article in the respected Washington-based publication National Journal, he was quoted as saying that under the "New Paradigm" -- the term he prefers to use for empowerment -- the nation's poor and heavily black "underclass" could "evaporate" in 20 years.
Outside the White House, two conservatives -- one white, one black -- appear to have played key roles in bringing Mr. Bush around to the empowerment concept.
A seminal analysis of the president's need for a positive approach to civil rights -- and a strategy for meeting the need through the empowerment concept -- was set forth in a "backgrounder" paper written last June by Clint Bolick, director of the conservative Landmark Legal Foundation Center for Civil Rights, for the conservative-oriented American Heritage Foundation.
"George Bush has a tremendous opportunity," Mr. Bolick wrote, adding that "he should propose new policy initiatives that express his vision of civil rights, rooted in empowerment and a firm commitment to prosecute actual [racial] discrimination."
Mr. Bolick left no doubt about where his paper was aimed. "Our target audience has always been the White House," he said in an interview.
Just the month before Mr. Bolick's paper was published, Mr. Bush had heard from Robert L. Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, one of a number of black leaders who met with the president in May to discuss civil rights issues.
Nearly all of the other leaders advocated the the civil rights bill that the president wound up vetoing. However, Mr. Woodson, who describes himself as as "independent radical" -- and who had earlier turned down Mr. Bush's offer of an appointment to the administration -- set forth "an alternative, which advances strategies for empowerment of the underclass," as "the most credible solution."
Mr. Bolick and Mr. Woodson have said it is imperative that the White House emphasize in its civil rights counteroffensive that there is a "linkage" between empowerment and "vigorous enforcement" of existing anti-discrimination laws.
The president seemed to be offering reassurance on this point in his speech Monday.
"I am committed to civil rights and opportunity for every person in this great country," he said.