WASHINGTON -- Partisan cross-fire over a proposed civil rights bill intensified yesterday when President Bush charged that the Democratic version would lead "to lawsuits and discord" instead of racial harmony.
Democrats, meanwhile, accused Mr. Bush of practicing the politics of racial polarization and countered with predictions that the bill would win a solid majority in the House next week, when a vote on the measure is scheduled.
"The bill is not in trouble," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash. "The question is to maximize the votes on the bill. The bill is going to pass."
Yesterday's political heat was generated as Democrats frantically twiddled with the details of the legislation in hopes of winning a veto-proof two-thirds majority.
The bill is aimed at ending discrimination in the workplace, making it easier for victims of such discrimination to sue for damages.
But many Republicans, conservative Democrats and business officials contend that the bill would force employers to use one form of discrimination -- namely, hiring by racial quota -- to end other types of bias that have long been prevalent in American society.
Democratic leaders and civil rights advocates had hoped they had hit on the right language to neutralize those arguments, including in the bill a formulation explicitly prohibiting fixed racial quotas.
Yesterday, however, the administration continued its barrage of criticism of that provision and the Democratic bill generally, promoting instead a variant written by Republicans.
"The new language to outlaw quotas is purely and simply a hoax," said Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh.
"The bill excludes from the definition of quotas the only kind of quotas that matter, and it gives safe harbor to quotas already in existence."
Mr. Thornburgh went on to say that the bill would only bar employers from using quotas to hire unqualified people, while effectively encouraging quotas for hiring people "so long as they met minimum standards."
In a speech before graduating FBI special agents at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., yesterday, Mr. Bush complained that "congressional leaders again want to pass a bill that would lead employers to adopt hiring quotas and unfair job practices."
"Let's start over. Let's make harmony our goal," Mr. Bush said.
Democrats, for their part, were not at a loss for words.
"This is not a president who wants a civil rights bill; this is a president who wants to save his negative ads from 1988 and use them again in 1992," charged House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo.
"This is the first president in the civil rights era who wants to tear us apart for political gain," he said.
Despite the defiant tone, Democrats conceded that they were struggling to match the level of support the bill enjoyed last year, when it passed with 273 votes -- 17 votes short of the two-thirds that would be needed to override a veto if all 435 members voted.
Debate on the bill, which had been scheduled to begin today, was postponed until next week after party vote counts suggested that the leadership was far from winning the veto-proof majority they seek.