WASHINGTON — President Reagan indicated Tuesday that he favors a proposal by Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III to abolish the 20-year-old executive order that empowers the Labor Department to set minority hiring goals and timetables for federal contractors.
The order, strongly supported by Labor Secretary William E. Brock III and at least two black Republican groups, has been considered a key affirmative action measure by civil rights organizations.
Reagan, answering questions at his press conference, said that while he had not yet made a decision on the issue, he is opposed to quotas and, "in administering these programs, we've seen that the affirmative action program was becoming a quota system." The executive order does not call for quotas.
The issue has sharply divided the Reagan Cabinet since Meese first raised it six months ago. Despite instructions by Reagan for them to reach a compromise on the issue, Meese and Brock have been unable to resolve the matter.
Recently, black Republicans have urged Reagan to retain the order. In a strongly worded letter earlier Tuesday, the Council of 100, an influential group of black Republicans, warned Reagan that diluting the order would be "harmful and destructive to minorities."
Rescinding the order, the group wrote, would "unleash another era of discrimination and economic oppression against vulnerable Americans."
Earlier, the National Black Republican Council, an arm of the Republican National Committee, adopted a resolution that said the Meese proposal would "effectively undermine the compliance process that is now working with the backing of both business and labor."
Reagan said his concern is that affirmative action programs could involve quotas that actually would result in discrimination.
Opposition to Quotas
"Now, I've lived long enough to have seen quotas when they were employed long before there was a civil rights movement, when they were employed in my youth to definitely discriminate and use the quota as a means of discrimination," he said.
The executive order, administered by the Labor Department, requires employers receiving federal contracts to establish goals and timetables for hiring and promoting minorities and women if they are under-represented in the work force.
The issue of whether to change the order threatens to alienate blacks from whites in the Republican Party, a prospect that some blacks believe would harm the image of Vice President George Bush, a strong potential presidential candidate in 1988, because he is viewed as a moderate with a chance to gain black support.
Milton Bins, chairman of the Council of 100, said in an interview that affirmative action is a "blood and guts issue" for black Republicans. Diluting the order, he said, would "undercut efforts to blacks" to bring more minorities into the party.
Supporters of the order, including the National Assn. of Manufacturers and many civil rights groups, say that 69 senators will introduce legislation to make the order law if Reagan tries to weaken it.
But Meese is adamant in seeking to abolish the order. "Some blacks agree with us, some blacks disagree," Justice Departmernt spokesman Terry Eastland said. "The truth of this issue doesn't turn on what color you are, but what you think the merits of the issue are."