WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, is charging that President Bush has created racial disharmony and "sabotaged" private talks aimed at forging a compromise on legislation to combat job discrimination against minorities and women.
Expressing hope -- but no optimism --that an agreement may yet be reached, Mitchell said yesterday that four Democratic senators he appointed are working with nine moderate Republicans in an effort to reach a consensus on a bill that would be acceptable to Bush.
But the impasse is unlikely to be resolved as long as Bush insists on passage of his own legislative proposal, which most congressional Democrats and some Republicans oppose as doing too little to protect against job bias, Mitchell said.
The pointed criticism by the Senate leader, who until recently had refrained from personal attacks on Bush, underscores the unusually deep divisions between the Democratic-controlled Congress and the administration over civil rights legislation.
The dispute, which Mitchell called a potentially explosive issue "with enormous implications for our society," involves legislation designed to reverse a series of 1989 Supreme Court decisions that narrowed thescope of laws prohibiting job discrimination.
Bush contends that a pending Democratic-sponsored measure would force employers to adopt rigid hiring quotas for minorities and women to protect themselves against possible discrimination lawsuits. The president wants Congress to pass an alternative administration bill and has given no indication he is willing to compromise on the issue.
Mitchell said that Bush "sabotaged" private talks last April between big business and civil rights groups "because they were on the verge of success" in efforts to reach a compromise on civil rights legislation. The Business Roundtable, a coalition of leading U.S. corporations, pulled out of the talks under pressure from the White House.
Mitchell called race "the most divisive issue in our nation's history and an irresistible temptation for political exploitation."
While several presidents have used the power of the White House to advance racial harmony, Bush "has done the opposite," Mitchell said. The majority leader's extraordinarily harsh attack on the president came during a luncheon session with reporters.
The White House declined to respond.