A LARGELY partisan struggle to assign blame is under way following the breakdown of a nine-month effort to pass new civil rights legislation that would have strengthened laws against discrimination in the workplace. President Bush is losing, and Democratic and civil rights proponents of the congressionally passed legislation are winning. ``This, like the budget, is an exercise in spin,'' says Douglas Besharov, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. ``Just as the president lost the spin on the budget thing, I think he is in the process of losing the spin on civil rights.''
That is not helpful to Republican candidates in the election two weeks away who are seeking sizable numbers of minority votes. And it could have implications for the president himself in his bid for a second term in two years.
The congressionally approved legislation sought to reverse a United States Supreme Court ruling of last year and require employers to have the burden of proving that an apparently discriminatory action against an employee is justified for business reasons. Last year's Supreme Court decision transferred the burden of proof to the employee.
The president said that he vetoed this civil rights bill Monday largely because it would have had the effect of forcing businesses to set quotas in the hiring and promoting of women and minorities in order to avoid lawsuits. He said that he could not accept quotas.
As he has all year, Mr. Bush insists that he still wants to sign a civil rights measure, and calls on Congress to pass a new bill more to his liking in this final week of its session. He has offered some proposals that civil rights leaders and some leading congressional Democrats flatly reject.
Meanwhile Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, the principal Senate sponsor of the vetoed measure, calls the president's rejection ``a cynical attempt to appear to support civil rights while actually satisfying the anti-civil rights forces in his own party.''
Senator Kennedy adds that ``the president's actions demonstrate that he is more interested in appeasing extremists in his party than in providing simple justice for the millions of working women and minorities who face bias on the job.''
After talks that were aimed at reaching a compromise acceptable to the White House had broken off, a Kennedy aide said Monday: ``We're always willing to talk, but we don't think there is any more room'' to negotiate.
``This is a case where reasonable people differ on the impact'' of the civil rights bill, Mr. Besharov says. ``It's hard to believe that [quotas are] a question of racism. However, the president is clearly being backed into a corner'' where he's being depicted as a racist.
The president was having to deal not only with the Democratic-controlled Congress but also with some reported division with the ranks of his White House advisers on whether to veto the measure promptly or continue to try to negotiate an agreement.
The civil rights community was rocked last year when the Supreme Court in a 5-to-4 decision transferred the burden of proof from employer to employee in job-discrimination suits.
In a case called Wards Cove, which involved Alaskan cannery workers, the court said that if a sued employer claims the alleged discriminatory action was necessary for a legitimate business reason, it then is up to the employee to disprove that assertion.
CIVIL rights leaders said if this ruling were permitted to stand, it would make successful job-discrimination suits almost impossible.
In response to this ruling Congress put on its agenda passage of a bill that would shift the burden of proof back where it had been - on the employer to prove that his action was justified for a legitimate business reason that could not have been met in some less-discriminatory way.
This was one of two major civil rights bills Congress was intent on approving the year. It approved the other, which offered full civil rights protection to people with disabilities; Bush signed it into law this summer.
But a bill on discrimination in employment seems highly unlikely to become law this year, despite the president's soothing statements that he believes enough time remains to enact such a measure, and that ``Congress shares my commitment to civil rights and my opposition to quotas.''
Congress was expected to try to override the president's veto, but not to succeed. Although the measure passed by a wide margin in each House, it was slightly less than the two-thirds majority necessary to overcome a presidential veto.