WASHINGTON — Under pressure from the Bush Administration, a group of corporate executives said Friday that it was dropping efforts to reach a compromise with civil rights leaders on an anti-discrimination bill.
The Business Roundtable, a group of big-business leaders, disclosed it was halting the talks one week after White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and other Administration officials were reported to be pressuring the business community not to compromise with civil rights groups.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) accused the Bush Administration of thwarting a compromise.
"The Administration's strong-arm tactics to undermine the efforts by business leaders to reach a fair compromise on civil rights are unacceptable," Kennedy said. "Such tactics add further proof that the White House would rather have a divisive campaign issue next year than a fair civil rights bill this year."
AT&T Chief Executive Officer Robert Allen had been leading the big business efforts toward a compromise, which began with informal negotiations last December and appeared to be nearing agreement in principle on a bill as recently as this week.
Richad W. Anthony, spokesman for the Business Roundtable in New York, cited partisan differences over the bill as leading the group to halt its efforts.
"Given the absence of a bipartisan consensus, the Roundtable has concluded that for the time being it has done all that it should," Anthony said. "We remain hopeful that the political process will ultimately produce an agreement on this important matter."
Civil rights groups had hoped to reach a consensus with the business group on a compromise civil rights bill that would swiftly produce broad consensus in Congress--and a veto-proof majority.
Such an agreement, they reasoned, would knock the legs out from under President Bush's insistence that the bill was bad for business and would prompt employers to resort to quotas in hiring and promotion.
But the Bush Administration last week urged the business leaders to back away from a compromise and said the compromise that the Business Roundtable was moving toward would still be opposed by smaller business groups. The group is made up of more than 200 big corporations.