Hill's harassment allegations provide no boost to civil rights bill

October 21, 1991|By Nicole Weisensee | Nicole Weisensee,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- The political storm over Anita Hill's allegations that Judge Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her is unlikely to give much of a boost to the civil rights bill, which President Bush has threatened to veto, political analysts say.

Many Thomas supporters emphasized during Senate debate that they are against sexual harassment but just did not believe Hill. Yet those same senators are unlikely to vote this week for a civil rights bill that would, for the first time, allow victims of such abuse to collect punitive damages.

The Bush administration has successfully painted the legislation as one that would encourage hiring quotas at workplaces, and opponents will likely continue to use that argument to defend their votes against the bill, analysts say.

"They will stand up and say, 'We are not opposing this bill because of sexual harassment. We think it is vile, terrible, awful,' " said William Schneider, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

"Quotas is the divisive issue," he continued. "Just like at the hearings, they were saying the issue was Clarence Thomas' record; here they'll say the issue is quotas, not sexual harassment."

Women's groups, too, oppose the bill, but for different reasons. Both House and Senate versions limit the amount of punitive damages a woman can collect for sexual discrimination, which includes harassment. Current law sets no cap on damages for victims of racial discrimination.

"If it passes in that form, it will only exacerbate the conviction that women and other civil rights activists have that Congress and the president do not take seriously women's claims to equal justice," said John Katz, a member of the board of the National Organization for Women.

The original version of the civil rights bill, sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., set no ceiling on damages.

Despite White House opposition, supporters of the bill remain optimistic that the sexual-harassment furor will lend impetus to the Senate bill, sponsored by Thomas backer Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., and supported by Kennedy.

Danforth's bill would overturn a series of recent Supreme Court decisions that made it easier for employers to defend themselves against job discrimination suits. In a failed attempt to appease the Bush administration, the bill also limits the amount of punitive damages victims of sexual or religious discrimination can collect.

"I think the senators are now re-evaluating the civil rights bill, and I think not only from the standpoint of gender, but also race," Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said in an interview late last week. "I think there's a much more heightened awareness of discrimination, which lends an impetus to the civil rights bill."

Mikulski, who angrily lambasted her mostly male colleagues for what she called their inability to understand the seriousness of sexual harassment during Senate debate over the Hill-Thomas matter, refused to vilify her colleagues if they don't support the civil rights bill.

"I believe the Senate views it [sexual harassment] the same way they view any other situation," she said. "If it does not have the same impact on them, it is often ignored or minimized. The same thing happens in major corporations and small businesses. I think we continue to treat the workplace as if it were back in the 1950s."

Because Bush has threatened to veto the bill, he is the one who should be blamed if the Senate cannot come up with a veto-proof margin, she said.

"It says that George Bush should not have vetoed it in the first place, and that one needs to take a look at the president, the quality of the people he's nominating to the Supreme Court and the fact that he's vetoing the civil rights bill, the jobless benefits bill and the family and medical leave bill," she said.

Political analysts believe the Thomas-Hill controversy will allow the bill to pick up a couple of votes, but not enough to override a veto. In that case, it may result in a separate bill that deals specifically with sexual harassment or some other effort to address many women's current dissatisfaction with the Senate.

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