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Senate Spotlights Affirmative Action Debate

May 01, 1996|DAVE LESHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans turned an eye toward California on Tuesday, staging a hearing that portrayed the state's anti-affirmative action ballot measure as the harbinger of a national debate and a looming confrontation between the prospective White House campaigns.

Witnesses on both sides, including California Gov. Pete Wilson, warned that the issue is packed with "social dynamite" and grave consequences for race relations if America chooses the wrong path.

But the day also left little doubt that California's debate over its ballot measure will be highly charged with national interests and presidential politics. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, opened the hearing Tuesday morning by staking out the sides in the upcoming showdown.

"Nothing better sets out the starkly different visions of this administration and those of us who believe in equal opportunity for all Americans than the Clinton administration's attempted bullying of California on this matter," said Hatch. "Nothing better belies this administration's claim to be reformist. . . . It is essentially a defender of the status quo."

Simultaneous with the Hatch hearing, another Senate committee Tuesday considered a federal version of California's ballot measure that was proposed by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

At that hearing, a Clinton administration official dismissed Dole's bill as a "blunt and extreme measure" that would "work substantial harm."

Both measures--one aimed at the state government and one aimed at the federal level--would ban special considerations for women and ethnic groups in government hiring and contracting.

Together, the two Senate hearings underscore Republican expectations that most Americans agree with them and support the California ballot measure. Dole has endorsed the initiative and he plans to campaign for its passage in the state, where polls show he is far behind President Clinton.

But Democrats said Tuesday that they expect the Republican plan to backfire. And they dismissed the Judiciary Committee hearing as "a totally political" event, said Ann Lewis, spokeswoman for the Democratic campaign.

At the White House, officials also blasted Dole for being hypocritical on the issue because he favored affirmative action programs in the past.

"Sen. Dole is looking for a campaign issue," said George Stephanopolous, Clinton's senior advisor. "For years, he has supported affirmative action. Now that it is an election year, he's spearheading an effort to completely eliminate equal opportunity programs even beyond what the Supreme Court is calling for. That is an extreme position."

Dole spokeswoman Joyce Campbell acknowledged the senator's past support for programs that included preferences based on race and gender. But she said that "record does not disqualify him today from raising legitimate questions about the continuing fairness and effectiveness of affirmative action."

Polls in California indicate that a majority of voters support the state's ballot measure to ban affirmative action programs. But Clinton officials said they believe public attitudes will moderate when voters are educated during the upcoming campaign.

The Supreme Court case Stephanopolous referred to was last year's Adarand decision in which the justices found "all racial classifications" by government agencies are "inherently suspect and presumptively invalid." The court said racial classifications could only be constitutional if they serve a compelling government interest and are narrowly tailored to further that interest.

After the court's decision in June, Clinton ordered the Justice Department to review federal agencies for compliance. The review was the basis for the president's subsequent announcement of an affirmative action policy he dubbed, "Mend it, don't end it."

At Tuesday's Senate hearing, opponents of the California initiative praised Clinton's approach. But the discussion also underscored the legal confusion, semantic ballet and tearful emotions that this issue generates.

Both sides agreed on two things: that racial and gender discrimination still exists in America and that the nation's goal is to end it. But each side blamed the other for perpetuating the problem rather than finding a solution.

Supporters of the ban on affirmative action programs, including Wilson, said the current system is unfair because it promotes some ethnic groups over others in an attempt to obtain diversity. Despite court rulings that prevent quota systems based on race, Wilson argued that a special consideration granted to ethnic groups cannot be accomplished any other way.

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