Bush Vetoes Civil Rights Bil; Claims It Could Harm Firms

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WASHINGTON (AP) - President Bush vetoed a major civil rights bill Monday and seemed assured of winning a battle in Congress to override him.

``I deeply regret having to take this action,'' Bush said.

The president called on lawmakers to enact his version of the measure before they quit for the yea, probably later this week. However, that appeared unlikely, as Bush's critics scoffed at his proposal.

The administration argued that the bill, as passed by Congress, would force businesses to adopt quotas in hiring and promotion. Supporters of the measure rejected the White House argument and portrayed Bush's stand as a measure of his commitment on human rights.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chief Senate sponsor, called the veto ``tragic and disgraceful.''

``When the chips are down, the White House is against civil rights,'' Kennedy said. He urged Congress to override the president.

Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said Bush's veto ``will victimize his presidency forever. He joins Andrew Johnson and Ronald Reagan as the only presidents to veto a civil rights bill.''

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.

Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins, D-Calif., the prime House sponsor, said he would not even ask for an override vote without the two-thirds needed by supporters. ``I'm just not going to waste any more time,'' Hawkins said, adding that civil rights forces might even lose support in an override fight.

In his veto message, 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. ``The very commitment to justice and equality that is offered as the reason why this bill should be signed requires me to veto it.''

He said, ``I deeply regret having to take this action with a bill bearing such a title, especially since it contains certain provisions that I strongly endorse.''

The measure would nullify six Supreme Court decisions that have made it more difficult for women and minorities to prove and win job discrimination suits. It would ban racial harassment in the workplace and allow punitive damages in the most serious discrimination cases.

Bush said there were many similarities between the bill he vetoed and the version that the administration supports, offered at the last minute to ease the veto.

Civil rights advocates denounced the latest version of Bush's bill as a sham for permitting challenged hiring practices to stand if they could be justified on such grounds as ``customer relations,'' 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.

Rep. Don Edwards, D-Calif., chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, called Bush's bill ``a tired rehash of policies considered and rejected by the Congress. ... We have nearly compromised this bill to death.''

Summing up his key argument, Bush said, ``Despite the use of the term `civil rights' in the title ... the bill actually employs a maze of highly legalistic language to introduce the destructive force of quotas into our nation's employment system. …