Clinton to address 'set-asides'


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, in a long-awaited statement on affirmative action next week, is expected to offer a spirited defense of granting preferences by race and gender in such areas as hiring, promotions and college admissions.

The speech, scheduled for next Wednesday, will offer a clear contrast on this emotional subject between the president and the Republicans vying for the right to challenge him next year, according to White House aides, members of Congress who spoke to Mr. Clinton yesterday and civil rights activists.

Mr. Clinton will draw a distinction, these sources said, between affirmative action programs that he considers fair and others that resort to rigid "quotas." Some "set-aside" programs that guarantee that a portion of government contracts go to minority companies are among the programs that Mr. Clinton will say must be re-examined.

"But saying we're looking at something doesn't mean getting rid of it," cautioned one top White House official who asked not to be named.

After publicly flirting with the notion of severely curtailing nTC affirmative action, Mr. Clinton appears to be moving back to the traditional position held by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

"I'm confident the president will reaffirm his long-held support of affirmative action and his opposition to quotas," said Ralph G. Neas, counsel to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, whose views were solicited by the White House.

In preparation for the Washington speech, Mr. Clinton met yesterday with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat who is a prominent proponent of affirmative action.

"He thinks we will be able to appreciate, accept and support what he says," Mr. Mfume said in an interview last night. "He said, 'I think you'll like it.' "

White House officials gave a similar account. "He's going to defend affirmative action as a necessary tool for fighting injustice and inequality," one said last night. "You remind people of what it is about affirmative action they really like."

Increasingly, however, polls, anecdotal evidence and election returns show that sizable chunks of the electorate, particularly conservative and politically moderate whites, like little about race-based preferences.

Thirty years ago, race-based remedies such as scholarships for blacks, hiring goals for women and members of minority groups and business "set-asides," had bipartisan support. But in the past couple of years, a kind of realignment has occurred.

Today, most nationally prominent Republicans have backed away from the policy, saying it breeds racial mistrust.

Democratic leaders, for the most part, continue to defend it. They point to studies and statistics showing that blacks, Hispanics and women continue to trail white males in earning power and other measurements of success.

Mr. Clinton first announced his sweeping "review" of affirmative action on Feb. 22.

But coming up with a plan has proved difficult. At a March 3 news conference, Mr. Clinton said he had ordered a review of government affirmative action programs, and promised to swiftly reveal its findings -- and his own recommendations.

In the ensuing months, the timing of this announcement became a running gag at the White House as predicted announcement dates came and went. But it was clear that the political problems Mr. Clinton had tackled were quite serious. Moreover, while aides insist that Mr. Clinton's natural inclination was to seek a national consensus on the issue, the politics of it revealed how difficult the terrain is for anyone in the middle.

Republicans see affirmative action as a defining issue in which the public is in one place and the Democrats in another. GOP leaders are also backing up their view with actions and words.

Six weeks ago, Gov. Pete Wilson of California, a Republican presidential hopeful, issued an executive order seeking to curtail affirmative action in state hiring. Another Republican presidential candidate, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, is seeking co-sponsors for legislation that, in his words, would get the "federal government to get out of the race-preference business." In his presidential announcement speech, Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas said he would "abolish" the practice.

Other the other side, support for affirmative action remains strong among liberal activists who are the backbone of the Democratic Party. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson has hinted that any retreat by Mr. Clinton would facilitate a Jackson candidacy in the Democratic primaries.

Complicating Mr. Clinton's task was a recent Supreme Court decision that restricted the federal government's ability to enact race-based preferences. In a bitterly divided 5-4 decision, the court declared that Congress and federal agencies may use race-based benefits only as a last resort, and only when needed to meet "compelling" policy needs.

The ruling came in a case involving a white-owned highway contracting company from Colorado that offered the low bid on a federal project in Colorado but lost out to a company with a Hispanic owner.

The justices ordered a lower court to consider the constitutionality of a federal program that encourages prime contractors to award subcontracts to minority companies under the assumption that such minority companies are socially and economically "disadvantaged."

Mr. Clinton's Justice Department has already instructed all agencies in the government to comply with this standard. One White House aide said it might require only that the government compile information in order to keep such programs intact. Another said it ultimately could result in the curtailing of some minority set-aside programs, but that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.

Civil rights leaders said more court battles lie ahead before this issue is clarified but that for them, the first hurdle -- Mr. Clinton's own review -- seems to have been cleared.

"I'm optimistic," Mr. Mfume said. "But I'm cautiously optimistic."

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