Backers choose new tactics in drive for anti-discrimination employment bill


WASHINGTON -- Civil rights advocates in Congress, and the powerful lobbying coalition behind them, are aiming for another showdown with President Bush over the issue of legislation against discrimination in employment.

A new anti-discrimination bill, H.R. 1, already has been introduced in the House -- on Jan. 3, the first day of the current session -- and the Senate version is expected to be introduced soon. Each is very similar to the measure that Mr. Bush vetoed last October.

This time, civil rights strategists are signaling a change in tactics. They say they intend to concentrate on fashioning two-thirds majorities in the Senate and the House that could override another Bush veto. And they intend to emphasize that the bill seeks to protect the employment rights not only of blacks, but of women, other racial and ethnic minorities, and the disabled.

Hearings before the House Judiciary subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, chaired by Representative Don Edwards, D-Calif., are likely to be held next month, according to a House aide.

But a lengthy legislative process lies ahead. A Senate aide predicted that the bill will become law "by Labor Day."

Like last year's bill, the new one will aim to offset a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 1989 that undercut several federal statutes against job discrimination.

Mr. Bush vetoed last year's bill as a "quota bill" -- meaning that in his estimate, it would have forced employers to resort to hiring quotas to avoid job-discrimination suits.

Supporters of the bill insist that the quota issue is "phony," and that it was seized upon by Mr. Bush's conservative advisers to block the enactment of any measure overturning the Supreme Court decisions.

Strategists in the lobbying effort admit that they "lost control of the quota issue," as one put it, last year. "It was jerking Congress around and jerking us around."

Ralph Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the coalition of 180 organizations that will mount the main lobbying effort for the new bill, said that this time "we will not allow the opposition to frame the issues."

But civil rights strategists still doubt that the president will change his mind. That's why they will aim for the bill's enactment principally by obtaining such large majorities in the House and the Senate that another veto could be overridden.

Mr. Bush's veto last year was sustained in the Senate by only onevote. No House action on the veto was required once the Senate had sustained it, but the final House vote on last year's bill, the so-called Civil Rights Act of 1990, was 273-154 -- less than a dozen votes shy of the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override a veto.

Civil rights strategists believe that last November's elections created enough favorable changes in the House to provide a two-thirds majority for the bill in that chamber.

Clint Bolick, executive director of the Landmark Center for Civil Rights and a leader of the conservatives' lobbying efforts against the bill, says he's willing to bet that the changes won't be there.

Mr. Bolick has pressed the Bush administration to counter the bill by adopting a "positive civil rights strategy" -- "empowerment," he has labeled it -- which would feature "parental choice" in such decisions as where to send their children to school and where to live.

Although Mr. Neas said the Leadership Conference's lobbying will emphasize the bill's protection of the employment rights of women, other minorities and the handicapped as well as blacks, the war in the Persian Gulf already appears to be returning the focus to blacks' needs for anti-job discrimination laws.

Civil rights leaders are linking Mr. Bush's veto last year to what they describe as the "disproportionate" number of blacks in the U.S. armed forces stationed in the gulf area.

While the nation's blacks constitute about 12 percent of the total U.S. population, roughly 25 percent of the U.S. force in Saudi Arabia is black, and nearly half of all U.S. servicewomen in the Persian Gulf area are black, according to Defense Department figures.

Civil rights advocates blame the skewed proportions of blacks in the armed forces on a lack of employment opportunities in the private sector, which they say is a product of discriminatory hiring practices.

"It would be a terrible tragedy if black Americans come back from the Persian Gulf to be short-changed at home," said the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He also is chairman of the Lead ership Conference.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who is again chief sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, was reported to be "carefully touching bases" with other senators to ensure a long bipartisan list of cosponsors. Chief sponsor of the House bill is Representative Jack Brooks, D-Texas, the new chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. He succeeded Augustus F. Hawkins, who retired last year.

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