WASHINGTON -- A two-year stalemate over a landmark civil rights bill for the workplace ended yesterday when Senate Democrats unanimously backed a hard-wrung compromise that President Bush had accepted the night before.
The action appeared to assure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which would reverse a series of recent Supreme Court decisions that made it more difficult for victims of job bias to win lawsuits and collect damages.
By all accounts, Mr. Bush changed his position to make the compromise possible, largely out of concern that the public might think he was stonewalling on the matter and was more interested in having a political issue than a bill.
The president and his aides also appeared to have concluded that he was risking widespread alienation of blacks -- as well as an embarrassing reversal by Congress -- if he vetoed the bill.
"We have a civil rights bill," Mr. Bush said at a nationally televised news conference. "It's not a quota bill, and I couldn't be happier."
But Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell suggested that the president had sensed the prevailing political winds, bowed to the inevitable and grabbed "a fig leaf to cover his retreat."
"It's what we wanted all along," the Maine Democrat said. "It's obvious the president has retreated from his prior position."
Mr. Bush vetoed an earlier version of the bill last year, and throughout this year he has expressed adamant opposition both to the Democrats' version and to a compromise plan offered by Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo. Both bills, he contended, would force employers to resort to race-based hiring quotas to avoid being sued by workers.
The president's "quota bill" strategy fanned a smoldering national debate over the appropriateness of quotas and affirmative action programs generally. But Democrats always insisted that their bill would not force quotas, even including language tothat effect in one of their bills.
In recent days, administration officials sensed a drift away from Mr. Bush's position among formerly loyal Republicans, partly a result of the growing controversy over racial politics, which has been exacerbated by the success of former Ku Klux Klan official David Duke, who is running as a Republican for Louisiana's governorship.
Mr. Mitchell set the Senate's vote on the bill for Monday. The House already has approved a different version, but most observers expect the Senate's rewritten bill to prevail in a legislative conference between the two chambers.
Yesterday's agreement was greeted with weary satisfaction by many Democrats and Republicans, but some Democrats and civil rights activists expressed disappointment that the bill included -- at Mr. Bush's insistence -- monetary ceilings on damages that victims of sexual harassment and discrimination could receive.
Republicans plan to heed Mr. Bush's call and introduce amendments Monday that would extend the law's coverage to congressional employees, with some constitutionally required modifications in enforcement.
Mr. Mitchell said he would like to extend coverage to White House employees, who, he noted tartly, also are exempt but were not mentioned by Mr. Bush when he sharply criticized Congress Thursday for its immunity to many federal regulations.
Mr. Bush said yesterday that he had wanted legislation all along. "I said from Day One I wanted to sign a civil rights bill," he said at a meeting with Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Mr. Danforth, a key architect of the compromise. "Some of the severest critics are going to have to . . . take another look here, because this is very, very positive work."
The criticism had come from lawmakers -- including some membersof the president's own party -- and civil rights advocates who had labored for more than two years to get the White House to accept some kind of accommodation.
Mr. Danforth had complained that objections sprang up to prevent a final agreement every time he made some concession to the White House, implying that Mr. Bush's top two negotiators, John H. Sununu, the White House chief of staff, and C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel, were impossible to satisfy because of the supposed appeal of racial politics.
Even this week, as the bill was about to hit the Senate floor, there was no sign from the White House of any willingness to accommodate; again, Mr. Danforth's efforts were denounced as "a quota bill."
But Mr. Bush apparently decided that he stood to lose more by failing to compromise than he could gain by trying to tar Democrats with the quota brush.
If he vetoed the bill in the latest form suggested by Mr. Danforth and his allies in the Senate, the president apparently could no longer count on having the votes to keep his veto intact. Last year's veto of a similar bill was sustained by a single vote in the Senate, and it was thought that Mr. Danforth had the 67 votes needed for an override this time.