Kassebaum may challenge affirmative action principles

March 21, 1995|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- The chairwoman of the Senate committee that will hold hearings on affirmative action says that she expects Congress to make major changes in policies aimed at increasing the number of women and minorities in the workplace.

Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan., said yesterday she opposes government-set goals, quotas and contract set-asides -- three central parts of the affirmative action programs that have been established by the federal government over the last few decades.

Ms. Kassebaum, chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, said she supports outreach programs to improve access to jobs for women and minorities, but objects to numerical preferences.

Her comments were significant because some backers of affirmative action have been looking to Ms. Kassebaum to defend the programs from attacks by more conservative congressional Republicans.

While Ms. Kassebaum stopped short of advocating a wholesale dismantling of affirmative action programs, her criticisms made clear that she is prepared to challenge government mandates about the composition of the workforce.

During hearings on affirmative action this summer, Ms. Kassebaum said she will probe for alternatives, asking: "Are there other ways that we can make sure equal opportunities continue to exist?" She added: "It may mean changing some of the programs."

Among the possibilities, she said, would be eliminating goals and quotas or "in some way at least eliminating penalties for not having done so."

"A woman who wants to be a truck driver, she should . . . go through all the tests that are there. Or a plumber. But does that mean," Ms. Kassebaum asked, "that you should say 10 percent of the truck drivers should be women?"

"A goal [that] is set by the [government] of say 10 percent . . . to have women as truckdrivers, I'd have a problem with that," Ms. Kassebaum said.

She also raised objections to giving tax breaks to companies for affirmative action goals -- a current government practice.

Nonetheless, Ms. Kassebaum urged a careful review of affirmative action and warned that, if politicized, "this is an issue that can become very divisive."

Her comments followed recent attacks on affirmative action by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, a fellow Republican and Kansan, who has called for "a colorblind society" and argued that "the race-counting game has gone too far."

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