WASHINGTON -- Reacting quickly to the first hint of controversy, the Bush administration dropped yesterday a plan to use the new civil rights bill to eliminate affirmative action hiring programs.
But the overnight whirlwind of indecision, occurring shortly before President Bush signed the bill into law, left some critics questioning anew his commitment to civil rights.
"Mr. Bush, you ought to be ashamed," Representative John Lewis, D-Ga., a former aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said yesterday. "Whether you go through with it or not, to have this mentality, this mind-set in the White House, dramatizes the fact that the scars and stains of racism are embedded in every corner, in every section, in every institution of our country -- including the White House."
White House officials insisted early yesterday that the proposal had been a mistake from the start, and they blamed presidential counsel C. Boyden Gray for inserting it into a draft of comments Mr. Bush was to have made at yesterday's bill-signing.
The language credited to Mr. Gray would have dismantled federal equal employment opportunity policies, some of which have been in place more than 20 years.
Spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Mr. Bush never saw the proposal until Wednesday night, several hours after it began drawing criticism from Cabinet members and other officials. White House officials said the proposal angered the president, and Mr. Bush himself said yesterday afternoon at the bill ceremony, "I support affirmative action. Nothing in this bill overturns the government's affirmative action program."
But the controversy was nonetheless awkward for the president, not least because of its timing. The bill-signing in the Rose Garden was to have been a peace ceremony of sorts to end two years of bickering over the civil rights issue. Mr. Bush had vetoed last year's version of the bill, saying it would have promoted racial hiring quotas. He opposed this year's modified bill for the same reason but eventually agreed to a compromise that left both sides claiming victory.
With both sides remaining hypersensitive to such claims, it didn't take long for Mr. Gray's proposal to draw fire once it began circulating late Wednesday afternoon.
In part, it called for the termination "as soon as is legally feasible" of "any regulation, rule, enforcement practice or other aspect of these programs that mandates, encourages or otherwise involves the use of quotas, preferences, set-asides" or other devices based on race, gender, religion or national origin.
Among those in Mr. Bush's Cabinet who objected to the proposed statement were Labor Secretary Lynn Martin, Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan and Office of Personnel Management Director Constance B. Newman. Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., a leading proponent of the legislation, also objected.
White House officials saw quickly that, in addition to setting off another struggle over the civil rights issue, they had a public relations nightmare brewing. The administration then disavowed Mr. Gray's words so quickly that some critics didn't even have time to weigh in with a reaction. By the time the office of Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, was faxing his condemnation to media outlets, the reversal was several hours old and the bill had been signed into law.
But some administration opponents were not convinced that the proposal was dead.
"My gut tells me that the right wing in the White House and the administration is not going to give up in its effort to weaken the new Civil Rights Act and federal enforcement regulations," said Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
Mr. Fitzwater did little to allay such fears at a White House news briefing yesterday morning, when he stopped short of ruling out the possibility that Mr. Bush might later go along with Mr. Gray's proposal. He would say only that the president would continue to support affirmative action and similar policies "as long as they're consistent with the law."
Representative John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., said the president was conducting a calculated test of public reaction, in preparation for later action. "It's clear to me that this was a trial balloon," he said. "I cannot now go to sleep comfortably tonight thinking that this was some kind of internal accident, a mishap that we need not regard as any more than missed signals. This is a very definite message about what he [Mr. Bush] thinks about a great part of the Civil Rights Act that he just signed only a few hours ago."
Several Democratic lawmakers, such as Mr. Lewis and Representative Don Edwards of California, showed their displeasure by shunning the president's invitations to yesterday afternoon's bill-signing ceremony. The only Democrat from either house of Congress to show up was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who was a co-sponsor of the bill.
But others who have been critical of Mr. Bush in the past were more conciliatory yesterday. The Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, took the administration apology and explanation at face value, saying, "We trust that this draft and concept will be buried and forgotten."