WASHINGTON -- Most Maryland members of the House say they're ready to support a civil rights bill that President Bush says he would veto.
The key political issue in the debate over civil rights legislation is quotas: Would the bill crafted by the Democratic majority force employers to hire particular numbers of minorities and women?
President Bush says it would and backs an alternative bill. Although Democrats have inserted a ban on quotas in their original bill, HR 1, and made other changes, the White House said it still would "force employers to respond with quotas."
The House is tentatively scheduled to begin debate next week on HR 1 and other bills that will be offered as substitutes. Whatever the outcome, many lawmakers believe the politically charged issue of quotas will figure prominently in congressional and presidential election politics in 1992.
It remains to be seen whether Democratic efforts to fashion a winning bill -- one that would draw enough votes to override a veto -- have succeeded. Some lawmakers who favored the original language of HR 1 are upset by recent changes made in the name of compromise.
A key change would place a $150,000 limit on the amount of punitive damages that women, disabled persons and religious minorities could collect from discrimination suits filed against employers. Current law allows blacks to collect unlimited monetary damages and the sponsors of HR 1 originally wanted to give other victims of discrimination the same right.
Rep. Constance A. Morella, a liberal Republican from the 8th district in Montgomery County, said she will vote for an amendment to eliminate the damages cap from the bill.
Morella said having a cap for one group and not another is "really not equitable." But if the amendment does not succeed, she said, she probably will vote for the bill anyway.
Rep. Helen D. Bentley, R-2nd, said she hasn't made up her mind, but added: "I'm not going to go for anything that smells of quotas."
Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, doesn't want to see civil rights legislation weakened in a vain attempt to draw Bush's support. "I don't think watering the bill down any more makes it more palatable to the president," he said.
Mfume said he will support the compromise version of HR 1 if a stronger one can't pass. He lobbied successfully for an amendment that would extend the protection of domestic civil rights laws to Americans working for American companies abroad.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, questioned the White House's interest in civil rights legislation given the publicized efforts of Bush's aides to halt compromise efforts involving a leading business group and members of Congress.
"I feel very comfortable with the civil rights bill we're working on," Cardin said. "Not only will it not allow quotas but if someone is hurt by use of a quota that person could have a claim." Rep. Tom McMillen, D-4th, is another proponent of HR 1 who voted for similar legislation last year.
"I think the president's position is kind of surprising," McMillen said. "He wants to be the civil rights president, but he doesn't want to pass the civil rights bill."
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-1st, is a freshman legislator who wasn't around for last year's vote on civil rights and the subsequent veto by Bush. As such, he's been wooed by supporters of HR 1 and Bush administration officials who want him to support their alternative.
Both bills would improve civil rights protection, Gilchrest said, but
HR 1 may go too far and perhaps alienate people.
Gilchrest said he hasn't made up his mind, however.
Rep. Beverly Byron, D-6th, supports HR 1 but is willing to break with some female colleagues by supporting a cap on damages. "I think small businesses could be wiped out if there wasn't a cap," she said.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-5th, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, "is a strong supporter of the civil rights bill, the original one," said his press secretary, and is "open to the idea of abolishing the caps."