WASHINGTON -- Full agreement on language to remove the threat of hiring quotas from the pending civil rights bill reportedly was reached in talks between civil rights and business leaders -- before the corporate negotiators withdrew from the talks under White House pressure.
As far as both sides at the negotiating table were concerned, the issue of quotas "is over," according to one source close to the aborted negotiations.
The negotiators, who had been meeting privately since December, represented the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of about 185 organizations, and the Business Roundtable, made up of the chief executive officers of more than 200 major corporations.
But the agreement of the negotiators notwithstanding, the quota issue apparently is far from over as far as the Bush administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress are concerned.
All signs point to a major political battle over the bill -- and particularly over quotas -- remaining to be fought, with both Republicans and Democrats expecting that the outcome will be a major issue for the 1992 elections.
More than a week ago, just as the civil rights and business leaders were nearing agreement on the quota issue, White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray telephoned Business Roundtable executives, demanding that they withdraw from the negotiations. A major part of the business community, and particularly small businesses, was concerned that it would not be protected by the proposed language against quotas, the White House aides said.
Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, responding Monday to charges that the White House had sought to scuttle the talks between the civil rights and business leaders, denied the charges and appeared to dismiss the agreement, saying that "it looks like we're in a stronger position than we were last year."
Mr. Bush vetoed the 1990 civil rights bill on the grounds that it would tempt employers to use hiring quotas as a defense against charges of racial discrimination. The Senate sustained his veto by one vote.
In announcing his withdrawal from the negotiations, Robert E. Allen, chairman and chief executive officer of the American Telephone and Telegraph Co., who had been leader on the business side of the talks, said through a spokesman that, "given the absence of a bipartisan consensus, the Roundtable has concluded that for the time being it has done all that it should."
Still on the negotiators' plate when the business representatives withdrew was the issue of the size of monetary damages to be paid by employers when they lose suits charging racial discrimination or racial or sexual harassment. While negotiations had not begun on this issue, the two sides were reportedly optimistic about the chances of reaching quick agreement on limits for damages.
AT&T spokesman Herb Linnen said that Mr. Allen was still "hopeful that a resolution of differences on civil rights legislation could be attained, a resolution that would be equitable and fair to both the civil rights and business communities."