Democrats unveil civil rights package, intended to be veto-proof, to bar job bias


WASHINGTON -- Democrats unveiled a "new" civil rights package yesterday, one aimed at ending discrimination in the workplace and winning a veto-proof majority next week in the House of Representatives.

Republicans countered that the bill would do neither.

"This is a good bill. It is a simple bill. It is not a radical bill," said Representative Don Edwards, D-Calif., chairman of the House Civil and Constitutional Rights Subcommittee.

Added House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks, D-Texas: "It was not and is not and will not be a quota bill."

But the White House appears unconvinced. Although Democrats had not completed a final draft, administration officials contended that it would encourage employers to use hiring quotas, thus substituting one kind of discrimination for another. Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, argued that this incarnation would win little more support than last year's variant, which died under President Bush's veto.

"You can say this isn't a quota bill," said Representative Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill. "But you know if you take a bottle of muscatel and put a label on it that says Cordon Rouge 1812, it's still a bottle of muscatel."

Indeed, as the leadership began to line up support for next week's expected vote, it was uncertain whether the new bill would win over any new converts.

This year's bill, as last year's, is designed to make it easier to prove job discrimination, expanding opportunities for discrimination victims to collect damages and, effectively, overruling three Supreme Court decisions handed down two years ago.

In an effort to placate the opponents of the bill, it will also state explicitly that hiring quotas would not be "permitted," a position not taken in last year's bill.

But the new version of the civil rights bill was designed to win over wavering lawmakers -- especially Southern Democrats, who did not join the 273-vote majority that supported the bill last year. A two-thirds majority -- 290 votes if all 435 House members join the tally -- is needed to override a presidential veto. Last year, the Senate sustained Mr. Bush's veto by one vote.

The bill also contains a limit on punitive damages in job discrimination suits -- $150,000 or the amount of compensatory damages, whichever was higher. "I don't like caps, but we want to get enough votes to override a veto, and that's the name of the game," said Representative Edwards.

The new bill will also include language allowing employers to justify hiring practices that "bear a substantial and manifest relationship to the requirements for effective job performance" even if they have the practical effect of discriminating against a class of people.

Additionally, the bill would prohibit the practice of "race-norming" -- used by many states to adjust job-placement test scores of blacks and Hispanics to facilitate their employment.

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