WASHINGTON -- Lobbying over civil rights legislation intensified yesterday as the House Democratic leadership and the White House turned up the rhetoric and battled for a handful of votes that could decide the fate of three bills lawmakers will consider today.
On Capitol Hill, black leaders condemned President Bush for playing what they called racial politics in attempting to defeat a measure sponsored by the House Democratic leadership.
At the White House, Mr. Bush courted undecided Democrats, charging that the Democratic bills would lead to hiring quotas and promote racial discord.
The legislation targets five 1989 Supreme Court decisions that made it harder for women and minorities to win job-discrimination lawsuits.
Mr. Bush has vowed to veto any bill he feels would lead employers to use sex- and race-based quotas to avoid such lawsuits, despite language in the Democrats' bill that specifically bars quotas in employment.
"The president has betrayed his commitment to civil rights [by working] vehemently and viciously against civil rights," said the Rev. Joseph P. Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, echoing other civil rights leaders gathered for a Capitol Hill press conference.
At an afternoon speech to a group of business executives, Mr. Bush countered that his critics were trying to "grind me into the political dirt," and said that Democrats were the ones playing "just plain pure politics" on the issue.
The bill backed by the Democratic leadership encourages workers "to squabble and feud," the President told the National Federation of Independent Business leadership conference.
"The 'Beltway' interest groups . . . wanted a political win, they wanted to grind me into the political dirt."
Later, Representative Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill, blasted the Democrats' bill as "a melange, a bucket full of worms impossible to decipher," and called for passage of the Bush-backed Republican alternative.
All day, the House leadership continued to court Southern Democrats in an attempt to muster a two-thirds vote of the current 431 members, or 288 votes, depending on how many are present and voting today.
Similar legislation last year passed on a 272-154 vote in the House and 65-34 in the Senate.
The Senate's attempt to override Mr. Bush's veto failed, 66-35, by one vote.
Ralph Neas of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, an umbrella group of civil rights, labor and civic and religious groups, said: "We're not [at the two-thirds number] yet, but we've got a very strong bipartisan majority.
We'll have more votes than last time."
But House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, R-Ill, told a news conference that unless today's debate changes minds, he was confident that the GOP had the votes to sustain a presidential veto.
No bill has been introduced yet in the Senate, but Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo, and Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., plan to introduce their own package of civil rights bills today.