Congress faces broader, more complex rights bills


WASHINGTON -- Instead of simply debating again the civil rights bill that President Bush vetoed last year, Congress will be faced this time around with a broader and more complex set of legislative proposals to sort out and act upon.

Once again the primary proposal, already before the House and scheduled to be introduced shortly in the Senate, will aim to offset six 1989 decisions of the Supreme Court that diluted federal statutes against discrimination in employment.

The initial proposal will be very similar to the measure Mr. Bush vetoed last year, saying it would have forced employers to use racial quotas to avoid discrimination suits.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., chief sponsor of last year'sbill, will play the same role this year. An aide to the senator said yesterday that this year's version, which will be introduced "very soon," would vary little from last year's and again was likely to have a long bipartisan list of co-sponsors.

A Senate vote to override the president's veto failed by one vote.

On the House side, hearings before the Education and Labor Committee on a bill nearly identical to Mr. Kennedy's, already introduced by the committee chairman, Representative Jack Brooks, D-Texas, are scheduled to open next Wednesday.

John Dunne, assistant attorney general for civil rights, already has announced that that bill "is not legislation the [Bush] administration can support."

Meanwhile, the White House is planning a counterattack: an "omnibus" civil rights bill. Its most significant feature will be the addition of an entirely new concept to the civil rights debate: "empowerment."

The essence of the empowerment concept -- the brainchild of Republican conservatives outside the White House as well as in it -- is to give the poor and minorities choices in such matters as what schools they attend and what housing they live in, rather than to force their "dependency" on federal laws.

Specific contents of the administration's bill are expected to be made public next week.

Nevertheless, proponents of the Kennedy and Brooks bills are aiming to build the two-thirds majority in Congress necessary to override another veto. One way they see of doing that is to broaden pressures for the bills' passage this year by emphasizing that the measures would protect not only racial minorities, but women and the handicapped.

Grass-roots mobilization of all of these groups by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the lobbying coalition that supports the Kennedy and Brooks bills, is under way.

Women, however, also will be the target of Mr. Bush's Senate supporters. The minority leader of the Senate, Bob Dole of Kansas, and a dozen other Republicans will add to the civil rights debate a bill they will introduce today entitled the "Women's Equal Opportunity Act of 1991."

It is a legislative package covering such issues as protecting women against sexual harassment, strengthening laws dealing with domestic and street crimes against women and increasing employment opportunities for women by attacking the so-called "glass ceiling" -- discriminatory barriers that hinder the advancement of women at work.

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