Storm clouds are building over the new civil-rights bill in Congress. With the 1992 elections just over the horizon, this issue has become intensely politicized, with both parties shuffling for position.

In fact, this new fight, which supposedly is all about fighting discrimination in the workplace, largely involves political power and how each political party sees its future.Democrats, anxious to keep the traditional loyalty of black voters, are determined to fight for their new version of a bill that President Bush vetoed last year, which would have made it easier for workers to win job-discrimination suits against employers. Republicans, mindful of the fact that many white Americans are leery of anything that smacks of preferential job treatment based on race, have scored points by insisting (against a good deal of contrary evidence) that the Democrats' bill would lead to racial hiring "quotas."

Despite the rhetoric coming from both parties, there is little fundamental difference between the Democrats' bill and the competing version offered by the Bush administration. Both deal in complex language with damages that can be awarded to workers who prevail in discrimination suits.

The issue of quotas, which to many Republicans seems shiningly clear, is in fact murky. Neither bill requires quotas. Instead, the issue hinges on the point where employers might adopt quotas to guard against possible lawsuits. No one can say where this might occur. John Dunne, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, admitted to The Wall Street Journal that "there is no 5-yard line that divides quota territory from non-quota territory."

When the Republican and Democratic bills are seen as basically so similar, it becomes clear that the battle is over political power as much as anything else: Both parties see civil rights as a crucial issue for 1992 - and beyond.

However, this may well reflect old-fashioned thinking on the part of both parties. If both would join in a bipartisan accord on a civil-rights compromise, they each could gain - the Republicans from fulfilling a campaign pledge, the Democrats from shoring up their political base with minority voters. (Do not, however, hold your breath waiting for such reasoned judgment to prevail.)

The polarized politics of civil rights has obscured something else, something quite encouraging: The quiet but determined leadership of some large U.S. corporations in pushing for a civil-rights accord. Last year, 45 corporate chief executives and university presidents issued a sobering report stressing that America could not ignore the problems of its inner-city minorities. This awareness by business leaders reflects a more positive view of racial issues than the evasive stalling displayed by the Bush White House.

Yet even if the political jousting could be set aside, and even if every Fortune 500 executive should pledge unswerving support for the civil-rights agenda, there is no evidence that the core problem of race in America - the endemic poverty of the minority poor - would be helped.

To be sure, passage of a civil-rights bill would make more than a negligible contribution to the cause of greater racial fairness. Such a bill would restore the law to approximately where it was before 1989, when a handful of Supreme Court decisions made it harder for workers to win discrimination suits. Even though this would only be recovering lost ground, it has value as a sign that Americans' support for racial justice has not dwindled away.

Beyond this, what next? When will civil-rights activists come forth with innovative ideas for coping with urban poverty? When will more black celebrities find the time to become you-can-do-it role models for inner-city kids? When will the shame of millions of ruined inner-city lives jar more white Americans out of complacency?

Answers may be years in arriving. But such questions need to be asked, and an honest resolution of the current civil-rights debate would offer a promising place to start.