Lines drawn for showdown on rights bill


WASHINGTON -- Congress and the Bush administration took early but belligerent steps yesterday toward another showdown over a civil rights bill similar to the one the president vetoed last year.

On the House side, the Education and Labor Committee approved for floor action H.R. 1, a bill close to last year's measure. As of yesterday, the bill had 150 co-sponsors -- five of them Republicans.

Unlike last year's bill, it contained a provision that would enable women to sue employers for punitive damages in cases of intentional discrimination or harassment. The provision reflected the strategy of the traditional civil rights bloc this year to emphasize that its bill is aimed at advancing not only the rights of blacks, but also those of other racial minorities and, particularly, of women.

Beneath this theme remains the original purpose of the bill: to reverse six 1989 Supreme Court decisions that the civil rights bloc regards as having weakened federal laws against discrimination in employment. President Bush vetoed that bill last year on grounds that it would lead employers to hire by quotas.

Republican congressional leaders representing the administration warned at a news conference yesterday that the White House considers the proposal this year to be no better.

"If they want to bargain in good faith, we could settle this in 30 minutes," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan. "If they want to play the same fast political game they played last year, we'll sustain a veto."

The Republican lawmakers, too, picked up the emphasis on women's rights. As Mr. Dole and House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, R-Ill., introduced the Bush administration's civil rights proposal, Mr. Dole said the administration's bill "has plenty of firepower -- not only for our nation's minorities, but for the women of America."

The administration's bill would put a $150,000 cap on punitive damages, with its sponsors arguing that unlimited damages would create a "lawyer's bonanza" and lead employers to use quotas.

Representative William D. Ford, D-Mich., chairman of the House committee, also addressed the women's rights theme, saying, "If you supported women fighting as equals in Operation Desert Storm, then you should support changes [in the bill] which ensure that women will be treated as fairly in the workplace."

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