The program for federal contractors is carried out under a 1965 executive order. In 1986, the Justice Department tried to get President Ronald Reagan to make major changes in the order, which says that government contractors must "take affirmative action to insure" that job applicants are employed "without regard to their race, color, religion, sex or national origin."
As chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1984, Clarence Thomas said he had "serious reservations" about the guidelines because they encouraged too much reliance on statistical disparities as evidence of job bias.
Courts have deferred to the guidelines as an authoritative interpretation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the basic statute prohibiting job discrimination.
Though Mr. Bush's directive also refers to set-aside programs, it is unclear whether he is telling federal agencies to halt programs that reserve a set proportion of federal contracts for minority-owned businesses. Such programs, especially in the area of highway or airport construction, are worth billions of dollars and have been upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court.
Officials of civil rights groups expressed outrage over the possibility of Mr. Bush issuing such a directive, though they tempered their comments by saying they had not received word from the White House confirming whether the president intends to carry through.
"This statement would be a surrender to Jesse Helms and David Duke," said Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.