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Political Forecast : The Impasse on Civil-Rights Legislation in 1991: To Be or Not to Be?

July 07, 1991|JEFF LEVIN | Political Forecast interviews were conducted by Jeff Levin, who has worked in government in Los Angeles, Washington and New York

Will President George Bush sign a civil-rights bill this year? Why? The Times queried six politicians and key observers of this congressional debate about legislation that would overturn recent Supreme Court decisions that make proving job discrimination more difficult.

John Seymour,U.S. Senator (R-Calif.):

The real question is whether Congress will send him a civil-rights bill that he can sign--one that will not establish a system of hiring quotas. I'm against quotas, the President is against them and even a good number of Democrats will have trouble with that part of their civil-rights bill that deals with quotas.

I'm hopeful that we in the Congress can work in a bipartisan manner to produce a good civil-rights bill that doesn't set up a quota system. If we can do that, then I think he'll sign it as soon as it hits his desk. He wants to sign legislation that will strengthen the laws against discrimination. But if the price for that is establishing quotas, he won't do it. And I think the majority of Californians will support him.

E. Charles Brown,executive director, Voter Education Project:

No, he won't sign a civil-rights bill unless it's absolutely his bill. He thinks he's thrown the civil-rights community a bone with the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court--but I would stress that is a bone none of us wants. Bush has so poisoned the atmosphere with this scare tactic of charging that the legislation requires quotas--for very short-sighted political reasons--that it is clear he is not going to change his stance.

Nicholas Lemann,national correspondent for the Atlantic and author of "The Promised Land":

My armchair psychoanalysis of Bush is that there are two factors warring in his mind over this. On the one hand, this is a guy who is sort of an appointed President, a politician who is not fundamentally comfortable with elections. Unlike most politicians, elections have not been reliably good to him. John F. Kennedy never lost an election, Ronald Reagan never lost an election, but Bush has lost quite a few elections. He comes from a sort of patrician background where you're bred to be in appointive rather than elective politics. That side of Bush would not want to sign a civil-rights bill, because he would see it as a clear political loser.

On the other hand, Bush's class background, being brought up in a tradition of genteel, noblesse oblige Republicanism--that side of him would want to sign a civil-rights bill. I would predict that after the '92 election, he'll do a fair amount more in that direction, because he doesn't have to worry ever again about running for office. And the more secure he feels about his reelection prospects, the more likely it is that he'll sign a civil-rights bill.

Peter Lunnie,director of employee relations, National Assn. of Manufacturers:

I think Bush sincerely wants to sign a civil-rights bill. The question remains: Will Congress present him with a bill that he's willing to sign? . . . Is the debate over a political issue on the part of proponents, or are they sincerely interested in getting a good bill through that will enhance everyone's opportunity?

I think there've been several opportunities--last year and this year--for Congress to enact a bill that the President would sign very readily. I'll be the first one to acknowledge that there's been a great deal of rhetoric on both sides. But the President's concern--and certainly our concern--has been that the bill is not simply restorative, nor is it nearly as benign as it has been characterized.

We're willing to restore the law (struck down by the court). But I don't think anybody can say with a straight face that that would be the effect of the Democrats' bill or the Senate Republican compromise, for that matter. They reach back and touch issues that weren't even the subject of the court's ruling.

John H. Chaffee,U.S. Senator (R-R.I.):

I am hopeful. Last year, debate on this legislation was highly emotional, divisive, confusing and ultimately futile. This year, however, nine Republicans have introduced compromise legislation that we believe may resolve this impasse. We are working together to produce a bill that the President can sign and that will ensure the fair treatment of all workers.

Augustus Hawkins,former congressman (D-Los Angeles) and co-sponsor of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978:

I doubt seriously if he will sign one. I doubt if one will be passed that differs much from the one we passed last year. Assuming that is true, I would think he would not sign it.

If Bush's position is that a civil-rights bill will create an atmosphere in which some employers think it necessary to use quotas in order to guard themselves against a lawsuit--I don't think you can ever guarantee against that. Consequently, if standing on that particular principle, if you can call it that, I would think that it would be practically impossible to pass a bill that is completely immune against lawsuits. It's the nature of business that a lawsuit may arise.

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