The Baltimore Democrat, speaking as chairman of a Congressional Black Caucus task force on affirmative action, called on lawmakers to consult with leaders of minority groups and women's groups before making any changes to affirmative action programs.
Wading into an issue that could become a divisive one in next year's presidential election, Mr. Mfume also urged President Clinton to act cautiously on affirmative action or risk alienating minority voters who could be critical to his chances for re-election.
"I want to clearly and carefully warn the administration that by not being clear and firm on the issue of equal opportunity, equal access and inclusion, the president runs the risk of currently losing large segments of his base," Mr. Mfume said at a news conference.
Mr. Mfume called affirmative action an "essential tool to integrating minorities and keeping them in the mainstream of this nation."
Assigning blame to the White House, he pointed to a recently leaked White House review of federal affirmative action programs. The review reportedly concludes that many educational and employment preferences based on sex or race are justified but raised questions about "set-aside" federal contracts for minority-owned companies.
"We need bold presidential leadership, and we need it now," Mr. Mfume said.
Asked about Mr. Mfume's remarks, Mr. Clinton's spokesman, Mike McCurry, insisted that the president had shown leadership on affirmative action.
"To the contrary, I would suggest that [Mr. Clinton] had been helping frame a public climate in which we can make those changes that are necessary [while] making sure that this nation retains a fundamental commitment to equal opportunity and justice at a time where there are those who would abolish those commitments," Mr. McCurry said.
At his news conference, Mr. Mfume also spoke out against Republican efforts, such as those of Gov. Pete Wilson of California, who is expected to run for president next year, and Rep. Charles T. Canady of Florida, to curtail or end affirmative action programs.
Last week, Mr. Wilson dismantled some of his state's affirmative action programs.
Mr. Canady, chairman of a House Judiciary subcommittee that oversees civil rights, has said he will propose legislation this month that would bar most federal affirmative action programs.
"I have also a warning for the Republican Party," Mr. Mfume said. "If you think that racial minorities in this country are going to silently sit by and let 30 years of progress be taken away without a fight, then you are in for a very rude awakening. We are prepared to negotiate and to give and take. But we will not have policy imposed on us without giving input."
Without being specific, Mr. Mfume cautioned that economic boycotts and mass demonstrations could result if minorities were not consulted about the issue.
In an interview yesterday, Mr. Canady said he had in fact consulted with a number of minorities, including legislators, in preparing his legislation. But he said it was time to end preferences based on race or gender.