WASHINGTON -- The House moved forward on its collision course with President Bush over civil rights yesterday, easily adopting a sweeping bill to ban workplace discrimination that Republicans contend will encourage the use of racial employment quotas.
The 273-158 vote fell significantly short of the two-thirds majority needed to override an expected presidential veto, however. The bill now goes to the Senate, which must act on its own version.
While Democratic leaders predicted that a final, compromise civil rights bill would pass by a "veto-proof" margin, they were clearly disappointed that they did not close in on that total with yesterday's vote.
"A two-thirds requirement is a very, very tough test for any piece of legislation," said House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo. Then, trying to put the best face on things, he said it was "very, very significant" that this year's bill and a similar bill last year both won more than 270 votes.
Last year, an analogous, Democratic-drafted bill was adopted 272-154, and a compromise House-Senate version passed 273-154. It was later vetoed by Mr. Bush. In recent days, Democrats had spoken boldly of picking up an additional 10 or 15 votes -- still short of the margin needed to override, but close enough to suggest that the momentum would have been with the Democrats.
With yesterday's votes, Republicans gleefully claimed the political initiative. "Hah, hah!" said Representative Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., after a preliminary vote on the Democratic bill resulted in a 266-166 tally. Mr. Hyde and other Republicans had complained that Democrats had snubbed the GOP during the crafting of the bill, refusing to negotiate its terms with party leaders.
"It's all uphill now for the Democrats," said Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan.
"We've got a lot of options," he continued, adding that "there's no reason to negotiate unless they come our way."
The White House expressed similar sentiments -- albeit less tartly.
"We are gratified by the number of votes in opposition to the legislation. The 273-158 vote indicates strong support for sustaining a presidential veto," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. "The president remains hopeful that anti-discrimination legislation which does not produce quotas is enacted by Congress this year."
The House bill is supposed to reverse a series of 1989 Supreme Court rulings that made it more difficult for minorities to win job discrimination suits.
In addition, it would modify laws so that women, religious minorities and the disabled could more easily bring suit and collect monetary damages.
Debate on the measure commenced Tuesday, and polemics were hurled across the aisle in both directions.
"This is a shame and a disgrace that in 1991 we're still debating whether we should protect our fellow American citizens from discrimination," said Representative John Lewis, D-Ga., a leading civil rights activist in the 1960s.
"This bill codifies racial preferences," countered Mr. Hyde, who characterized it as "a quantum leap back from Martin Luther King's dream."
On Tuesday evening, the House rejected a Republican version backed by Mr. Bush as well as a more expansive version sponsored by members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Those votes, however, were just a prelude to yesterday's big event.
Democratic leaders were so anxious to improve on last year's results that they held the vote open for an unusually long period of time while the party faithful were dispatched in a desperate search for additional votes.
"I said we would do better than last year, and we did," said Mr. Foley. "One vote is better; I'll take that. If it had been one less, I'm sure you would have made something of it."
Nevertheless, it was the Republicans who celebrated yesterday's results, exulting in the fact that fewer GOP lawmakers supported the Democrats yesterday than did last year.
"There are 11 fewer Republicans in the House now than there were last year when we voted on this," said House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.
Then, in an olive-branch offering to the opposition, he added, "We think it is extraordinarily important to get beyond the hard language of the past few days. . . . Let's write a civil rights bill the president can sign."