Now Pass the Civil Rights Bill!

October 17, 1991

What splendid irony and fitting reward it would be if the congressional response to the Clarence Thomas confirmation fight is passage of a veto-proof civil rights bill to curb discrimination against women and minorities in employment.

Yesterday's Senate failure to pass an extension of unemployment compensation benefits over President Bush's veto might suggest there is little chance Congress can prevail over the White House. The same might be said about the Senate Intelligence Committee's likely endorsement of Robert Gates as head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

But civil rights could be different, and for one big reason: Sen. John C. Danforth, Republican of Missouri. Senator Danforth was just about the only figure on Capitol Hill who emerged from the lurid struggle over Justice-to-be Clarence Thomas' appointment to the Supreme Court with his reputation intact. His was a role in which his friendship and loyalty to Mr. Thomas, even in the midst of a mud fight, stood out as a universal human quality deserving admiration.

This same John Danforth, the ally of the White House during the Thomas hearings, is the adversary of the White House on civil rights. Last year, with the help of eight other Republicans, he came within one vote of overriding a Bush veto of a job discrimination measure. This year he has compromised and compromised and compromised without being able to satisfy an administration clique that would rather have a hot racial-quota issue in next year's election than any conceivable measure to restrict race or gender bias in the workplace.

Before the Thomas nomination struggle, Mr. Bush thought he could fob off the well-intentioned Mr. Danforth. Even when the Missouri moderate, drawing from last year's administration-backed legislation to protect the disabled, put the exact same words in his bill to safeguard women and minorities, Mr. Bush trotted out a spurious argument that the measure might discourage educational attainment for the disadvantaged.

Senator Danforth protested in vain. Charging that talk about quotas was "race politics," he warned this "is not only bad for my political party, it is bad for the country." In the same vein, on another occasion, he said: "I think it is a serious mistake for the president, his administration and the Republican Party to try to turn the clock back on civil rights."

Maybe President Bush could ignore Senator Danforth before the Thomas confirmation hearings made him a national figure. No more. The senator has long predicted he would amass a two-thirds majority to overcome a veto. Now we are counting on him to put his new prestige on the line to make good on this forecast. If civil rights triumphs in the Senate, we are confident it nTC will triumph in the House. Then the conservative Supreme Court, with Justice Thomas on the bench, will be confronted with a legislative mandate to stop trying to dilute protections against discrimination in employment.

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