WASHINGTON -- After nearly two years of divisive politics pitting whites against blacks in the workplace, the Senate overwhelmingly approved yesterday a civil rights compromise with hopes for a calmer era in race relations.
The deal between the Bush administration and a bipartisan Senate coalition was passed 93-5. The House also is expected to pass the bill. President Bush, who vetoed last year's version, has said he is ready to sign it.
The Senate action ended a fight between the Bush administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress over whether stronger civil rights laws would lead to quotas in hiring and promotion.
"The Senate vote is a resounding victory for civil rights," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., a sponsor of the bill.
"Those of us who have any public platform must be voices that appeal to the best in the American people, not to the worst instincts occasionally played to for political purposes," said Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., who led the negotiations that finally overcame White House resistance.
Reacting to criticism that Congress exempts itself from laws it imposes on others, the Senate also voted to extend anti-discrimination laws to cover its employees. However, some of the Senate's legal experts said a provision that allows for judicial review infringes on the independence of the legislative branch and is unconstitutional.
The Senate also agreed to require its members to pay any judgments in such cases out of their own pockets.
In addition to Senate employees, the measure covers White House employees and other government workers who had been exempted from civil rights statutes.
The five senators voting against the bill were all Republicans: Daniel R. Coats of Indiana, Steve Symms of Idaho, Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire, Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming and North Carolina's Jesse Helms, who shouted "No!" when his name was called.
The legislation began as an effort to reverse the effect of Supreme Court decisions making it harder for women and minorities to win job-discrimination lawsuits. But the bill passed yesterday goes much further.
For the first time, it would allow women, religious minorities and the disabled to seek compensatory and punitive damages in cases of intentional discrimination. Such damages now are available to victims of racial bias.
Women's groups objected that the compromise sets limits on cash damages in cases of discrimination based on sex, age or disability, though no limits exist in racial bias cases.
Still, women's rights advocates decided to take the compromise and try to remove the limits later.
"I am willing to yield because I think this legislation is an important step in the right direction," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md.
Business groups and some conservatives complained that the new rights for women would create an environment in which companies would use quotas to avoid lawsuits.
"The damages dangle a giant carrot for lawyers," said Damon Tobias, a lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "It's going to create a whole new class of ambulance chasers."
Under the compromise, a worker must show whether a specific job-application requirement, or job practice, causes discrimination. To successfully defend the practice, a company must show that the requirement is both related to the job in question and is a "business necessity."
The compromise also would ban racial harassment in the workplace and forbid employers from using race, sex, religion, color or national origin as a motivating factor in any job decision.
Although the fair-employment protections would apply to Senate employees, the enforcement method would be different than for other workers.