Drive for New Civil Rights Bill Runs into Snags Bush Administration Said to Have Undercut Talks between Backers, Business Roundtable

Article excerpt

PROSPECTS for this year's major civil rights proposal in Congress, never assured, now are more up in the air than ever. The situation in Congress today "is very much in a state of uncertainty and flux," says veteran Congress-watcher Norman Ornstein.

What caused the new uncertainty was collapse late last week of compromise talks between congressional Democrats and business leaders. Robert Allen, head of the Business Roundtable, pulled out of the talks, reportedly largely as the result of pressure from the White House.

Had congressional Democrats and the Roundtable been able to agree on a compromise, the result might have been to propel it through Congress and possibly even over a presidential veto.

It now is anyone's guess whether Congress will ultimately approve a bill that President Bush will sign, or that has sufficient votes to override a veto.

This year's principal bill, put forth in the House of Representatives by liberal Democrats, would make it easier for minorities, women, and persons with disabilities to win suits of job discrimination, by reversing the effects of recent decisions by the United States Supreme Court.

The measure's two thorniest issues remain the same ones that caused so much disagreement last year, when a similar measure came within a gnat's eyelash of victory: It succumbed when Congress narrowly failed to override a presidential veto.

One is the so-called quota question. The Democratic proposal requires employers who are sued to justify any employment practices that have a negative effect on groups of employees or applicants - for instance, requirements for academic degrees.

The Bush administration, small businesses, and some congressional Republicans argue that employers thus would be forced to hire quotas of minorities. Sponsors of the measure deny this. Many political observers say congressional passage of the Democratic bill as written would give Republicans a powerful weapon in the 1992 election - the explosive quotas charge.

The second issue is whether persons intentionally discriminated against should be able to sue for an unlimited amount. Existing law allows persons victimized by racial discrimination to sue for an unlimited amount; the new proposal would permit women and members of minority religions to do likewise.

The Bush administration and business groups oppose the limitless amount; in its own bill the administration seeks a $150,000 cap. …

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