Senate sponsors are launching a long-shot effort to override President Bush's veto of a major civil rights bill, which he says would encourage hiring quotas.
But the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins, D-Calif., acknowledged Monday that a new push for civil rights legislation likely will have to wait until next year."When the chips are down, the White House is against civil rights," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said following the veto. He called the action "tragic and disgraceful."
"I deeply regret having to take this action," Bush said in his veto message. However, he said the measure would leave employers so vulnerable to discrimination suits they would hire by quota in self-defense.
The Senate planned an override vote Tuesday, but sponsors appeared at least two votes short of the 67 needed for a two-thirds margin.
Hawkins said he would not seek a House override vote unless he was certain it would succeed. "I'm just not going to waste any more time," he said, noting, "I've been assured the bill will be introduced as soon as Congress meets next year."
The bill was passed by the Senate, 62-34, and by the House, 273-154 - strong majorities, but not reaching the two-thirds required to override a veto.
The measure, the civil rights community's top priority in Congress, would overturn six job bias decisions handed down by the Supreme Court last year.
Provisions range from a ban on racial harassment in the workplace to punitive damages in the most extreme cases of discrimination.
The sharpest clashes, however, have come over provisions that would make it easier to win discrimination cases against employers.
Bush said the "temptation to support a bill - any bill - simply because its title includes the words `civil rights' is very strong.
"But when our efforts, however well-intentioned, result in quotas, equal opportunity is not advanced but thwarted," he said in his veto message. "The very commitment to justice and equality that is offered as the reason why this bill should be signed requires me to veto it."
The president said the "bill actually employs a maze of highly legalistic language to introduce the destructive force of quotas into our nation's employment system." Under the measure, he said, "employers will be driven to adopt quotas in order to avoid liability."
Civil rights supporters scoffed at that argument. "It's pure poppycock," said Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "The bill has nothing to do with quotas."
"The president's veto and his repeated efforts to pin the false label of quotas on this legislation are part of a disreputable tactic to appeal to public resentment and prejudice," Neas said.
Bush called on lawmakers to enact his version of the measure before they quit for the year, probably later this week. However, that appeared unlikely, as Bush's critics said his proposal would weaken current law.
Civil rights advocates denounced the president's proposal as a sham for permitting challenged hiring practices to stand if they could be justified on such grounds as "customer relations." Such justifications, they said, were used to support the separate-but-equal "Jim Crow" laws of the first half of the 20th century that kept blacks in segregation.
Sticking points in civil rights bill
Here are the key disputed aspects of the civil rights bill passed by Congress but vetoed Monday by President Bush:
Legal Burdens: Congress would make it easier to file lawsuits charging discrimination in the workplace and make it harder for businesses to fend off such lawsuits.
The White House contends such changes would scare employers into using quotas because other policies would be too vulnerable to lawsuits.
Limitations on damages:
Congress proposes limiting punitive damages to $150,000 or the total of back pay and compensatory damages, whichever is greater, and would allow unlimited compensatory damages in some cases.
The White House would impose a cap of $150,000 (originally $100,000) on the total award of damages any one employee could win in a lawsuit.