WASHINGTONG — WASHINGTON -- Shortly before Congress overturned centuries of officially sanctioned racism with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, then-Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, the redoubtable Minnesota Democrat and civil libertarian, took to the Senate floor to issue a challenge quoted ever after.
"I will start eating these pages, one after another," he vowed, if the act mandates a "quota related to color."
Recently, Representative Henry J. Hyde, a comparably redoubtable conservative Republican from Illinois, climbed to the dais of the House radio-television gallery to decry the Civil Rights Act of 1991. He wielded an argument similar to that used by Mr. Humphrey's opponents 27 years before.
"You can say this isn't a quota bill," he said. "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."
This week's scheduled House debate on the legislation underscores how, in the span of a generation, the politics of minority rights has been turned on its head.
Though Mr. Humphrey's side prevailed in 1964, Mr. Hyde's view, shared by President Bush, appears destined to win the day in 1991. In the intervening years, lawmakers say, steady social progress by many minorities has been accompanied by growing resentment by the white majority against government-sanctioned preferences for the disadvantaged. That resentment, exacerbated by an anemic economy and widespread job insecurity, has created a climate that many analysts believe is uniquely inhospitable to efforts to expand affirmative action.
"They've heard the arguments that these bills don't result in quotas over and over again, but then they see things like 'timetables' and 'goals,' and that sure looks like a quota to them," said Representative Ed Jenkins, D-Ga. "So now, when they hear the same thing, they're skeptical."
Thus, the current political struggle over a new civil rights bill appears to be a repeat performance of last year's fight over similar legislation. Last year's bill died when the Senate sustained President Bush's veto. This year, says Mr. Hyde, "it looks like things are headed the same way."
This despite the best efforts of Democrats to cast the debate in different terms. Since last year's debate, the Bush administration and its allies on Capitol Hill have steadily bombarded the opposition with charges that the bill, outlawing discrimination in the workplace and increasing opportunities for women and minorities to sue for damages, would force employers to resort to hiring quotas.
The bill's champions, most of whom are Democrats, have repeatedly insisted that it would not require quotas and, indeed, unveiled a new variant that, for the first time, explicitly prohibited them. Nevertheless, the charge appears to have stuck, leaving many Democrats to wonder nervously whether their leaders have led them to the losing side of a potent political issue.
"If you say anything often enough and loud enough, it tends to take on a life of its own," said Representative Don Edwards, D-Calif., chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights. "That appears to be the case here."
Republicans, meanwhile, appear to have grown increasingly confident that they are in tune with public sentiment on this issue. Since last fall's veto, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., won a hard-fought re-election campaign after accusing his black opponent of favoring quotas. In Louisiana, David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, won 60 percent of the votes cast by whites in a surprisingly robust challenge to incumbent Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La.
The California governor's contest may be more instructive. Many pundits believe that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dianne Feinstein forfeited the election when she promised to hire state employees in the same racial and sexual proportions as the population at large. Then-Sen. Pete Wilson, the Republican candidate, accused her of supporting quotas. Today, he is Governor Wilson.
"We may not like it, but if it works as an issue, it's going to be used, just as it was in North Carolina and California," said Representative Vin Weber, R-Minn.
"The fact is that the politics of civil rights have been transformed, and that's something a lot of Democrats don't understand. Today, someone is more likely to be hurt if he's perceived to favor preferential treatment of minorities than if he's perceived to be somewhat insensitive to those things. That's not the way it was in the '60s, or even the '70s," Mr. Weber said.
And so, Democrats have tried to modify their bill to meet the times without sacrificing their principles. Since the beginning of the year, they have sought to emphasize the fact that this legislation protects women as well as minorities from discrimination.
Indeed, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman William D. Ford, D-Mich., thought of proposing to change the name of the bill to "The Women's Equity in Employment and Civil Rights Act" until several black Democrats protested that it would shift the focus of the debate.
Democratic leaders say the bill headed for the floor would also prohibit employers from boosting the scores of black and Hispanic workers to match those achieved by whites and Asians -- a standard practice in many states. They also promise to place a $150,000 cap on the amount of punitive damages that could be awarded to a victim of intentional discrimination.
For some lawmakers, the most consequential change may be the most symbolic. Last year's bill stated that nothing in it "shall be construed to require or encourage 'quotas.' " This year, the passage will add that quotas are not permitted.
"It's something you do so that members can go home and say, 'See, this isn't a quota bill,' " said Representative Barney Frank, D-Mass. "It's just atmospherics."
As atmospherics go, however, it may not be enough to alter the fate of the bill. Last year, the House did not vote to override the president's veto, but the vote on passage fell 17 votes short of the 290 needed to override with all 435 members present and voting.
GOP vote-counters say they don't expect any Republicans who opposed the bill last year to support it now. And of the 14 Democrats who voted against the bill, one Democratic aide conceded, "No more than two or three are likely to jump the fence -- if we're lucky."
Democratic leaders postponed last week's scheduled debate and vote. In the meantime, they continue to twiddle with the bill's details, if only to ensure that it attracts the same level of support as last year. Debate on the measure is supposed to begin Tuesday, but that is subject to change as leaders continue their search for support.
"They have a tough job," said Mr. Hyde. "They're out of step with the country."