Civil rights bill has advocates pleased, wary Senate to vote on measure today

October 30, 1991|By Arch Parsons | Arch Parsons,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON P — WASHINGTON -- As the Senate civil rights bill nears a final vote, leaders of the black civil rights establishment are pleased at the prospect that President Bush will eventually sign it into law. But there is no joy among them.

Even with their success, after two years, in moving the president to the point of compromise, they fear a further erosion of civil rights by a conservative Supreme Court.

Late last night, the Associated Press reported that the Senate leadership announced that a vote on passage of the civil rights bill would not take place until today.

As far as many black leaders and analysts are concerned, adoption of the bill would achieve the intended effect: repeal of six 1989 Supreme Court decisions generally regarded by the civil rights establishment as having diluted federal laws against discrimination in employment.

Wade Henderson, Washington lobbyist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, saw the bill as a "significant victory" and the end of the struggle over it as "a liberating development" for the NAACP.

George Mason University Professor Roger Wilkins said approval of the bill by Congress and the president would "send a needed message" to the Supreme Court, but he acknowledged that the measure in effect "just gets us back to where we were," in terms of protecting people against job discrimination.

Julius Chambers, executive director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the bill represents "a major breakthrough for victims of job discrimination," but he said it was "a given" that "more adverse decisions" would be handed down by the court.

"I'm afraid that we're going to have to spend an inordinate amount of time getting back what the Supreme Court has taken away," said Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "Two of the three branches of government are now hostile to civil rights -- the court and the White House."

In the case of the White House, the consensus among civil rights leaders seemed to be that Mr. Bush's acceptance last week of a compromise civil rights bill meant only that the president had come up nearly two years late and an untold amount of credibility short.

It was just over a year ago that Mr. Bush vetoed as a "quota" bill a civil rights measure that he said would lure employers into using racial quotas to avoid job-discrimination suits. The veto survived an override attempt in the Senate by one vote.

Last week, after negotiations by White House and Senate leaders, the president said he could "certify" that the resulting compromise bill no longer contained the threat of allowing quotas.

But civil rights leaders are saying that the bill Mr. Bush says is no longer a "quota bill" is in some ways stronger than last year's measure. Civil rights attorneys note that the current bill would effectively repeal a Supreme Court decision that had allowed employers wide latitude in defending business practices that appeared to be discriminatory to employees; instead, employers would return to an earlier, narrower definition of such practices.

While civil rights leaders were satisfied with the compromise, they rejected Mr. Bush's characterization of the bill as avoiding quotas.

"The president was simply forced to retreat," said Representative Kweisi Mfume, D-Md.-7th. "The bill never was a 'quota bill.' He was slipping in the polls. It was no longer in his best interest to continue the 'quota' line."

The president had "no change of heart," Mr. Wilkins said. "He dearly wanted to use the 'quota' issue in his presidential campaign next year, but he was told that this year an override of his veto might not be forthcoming."

Last week's negotiations were carried out with civil rights leaders notably absent.

"That wasn't a negotiation on civil rights," Mr. Wilkins explained. "It was negotiation on a matter of changing political dynamics facing the president -- the women's issue, the possible loss of votes for a veto override. And don't forget the primary victory of David Duke in Louisiana -- Democrats are warming up to dump Bush into the same stew with Duke."

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