WASHINGTON -- After weeks of furious argument and closed-door negotiations, an angrily split House launched yesterday its long-awaited debate on competing civil rights bills aimed at eliminating job discrimination against minorities and women.
"Today this House can open the courthouse door to any American who has been discriminated against because of race or color or gender or creed," said House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo.
"This bill codifies racial preferences and is a quantum leap back from Martin Luther King's dream," countered Representative Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill.
"The practical and predictable consequences of this bill -- notwithstanding its contrary assertions -- is to institutionalize color, ethnic and gender preferences under the false flag of civil rights."
Democrats, pitted against President Bush and his Republican allies, were confident they would win the
immediate legislative battle -- namely, that their civil rights bill would win a handy majority in a vote expected today.
As expected, lawmakers rejected last night a version sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, Democratic congresswomen and some liberal lawmakers, 277-152. Two hours later, the Republican-sponsored bill endorsed by Mr. Bush was defeated, 266-162.
The Democratic bill has been bitterly denounced by many Republicans, who contend that the bill would force employers to use racial quotas when hiring, effectively substituting one bias for another.
Faced with a presidential veto, House Democrats would not predict whether they would prevail in the larger political war, winning the kind of support needed to pass the bill into law over Mr. Bush's objections.
"I don't think we do, no," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., when asked whether his side had the two-thirds support needed to override a veto.
/# "However," he said, "I think we
will by the time the bill comes for final passage" -- after a compromise has been crafted with the Senate, where one version of a civil rights bill was only introduced yesterday.
The three bills in the House proposed different strategies to reverse a series of Supreme Court rulings that made it more difficult for minorities to win job discrimination suits.
The bills would also implement a complex array of changes in job discrimination laws, enhancing the ability of women, religious minorities and the disabled to sue for damages.
For Democrats, the primary challenge was to win more support for their bill than they did last year, when it passed with 273 votes -- 17 fewer than needed to override a veto, if all 435 members of the House actually voted. For Republicans, the challenge was to minimize the gains, if any, of the Democrats.
By accounts from both sides of the aisle, however, Democrats had in fact increased the number of probable supporters from last year, largely by tweaking disparate elements of the legislation to satisfy a handful of
conservative, largely Southern, Democrats.
High among those changes was addition of a passage explicitly forbidding the use of quotas to satisfy the bill's strictures -- a codification of a long-standing legal understanding, and one that Republicans contended would have no practical effect.
Indeed, the White House continued its attacks on the Democrats' bill yesterday. Mr. Bush's spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, contended that provisions in the Democratic-sponsored bill "clearly amount to quotas" and would force employers to hire by race to avoid lawsuits.
Mr. Foley angrily countered that Mr. Bush had unfairly accused Democrats.
"For the president to accuse us of raising racial or other divisions in this society is incredible," Mr. Foley said. "It is the quota issue and the rhetoric, constant rhetoric about quotas that is creating divisions in this country, creating antagonisms and emotions between groups."
In the Senate, meanwhile, several
moderate Republicans introduced their own version of the civil rights bill, one they said struck a middle ground between the positions of the president and the House Democrats.
"I believe civil rights should not be fodder for partisan cannons and am concerned the debate is headed in that direction," Republican Sen. John C. Danforth of Missouri said. "Do Americans want an important part of the nation's commitment to fairness to be an annual partisan jousting match? I believe they do not."
In the Maryland delegation to the House, those who voted for the version crafted by Black Caucus representatives were Representatives Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd; Steny H. Hoyer, D-5th; Kweisi Mfume, D-7th; and Constance A. Morella, R-8th.
Voting against the Black Caucus version were Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd; Beverly B. Byron, D-6th; Tom McMillen, D-4th; and Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-1st.
On the Republican version, only Representatives Bentley and Gilchrest voted "yes."