PROSPECTS for this year's major civil rights proposal in Congress, never assured, now are more up in the air than ever. The situation in Congress today ``is very much in a state of uncertainty and flux,'' says veteran Congress-watcher Norman Ornstein. What caused the new uncertainty was collapse late last week of compromise talks between congressional Democrats and business leaders. Robert Allen, head of the Business Roundtable, pulled out of the talks, reportedly largely as the result of pressure from the White House.
Had congressional Democrats and the Roundtable been able to agree on a compromise, the result might have been to propel it through Congress and possibly even over a presidential veto.
It now is anyone's guess whether Congress will ultimately approve a bill that President Bush will sign, or that has sufficient votes to override a veto.
This year's principal bill, put forth in the House of Representatives by liberal Democrats, would make it easier for minorities, women, and persons with disabilities to win suits of job discrimination, by reversing the effects of recent decisions by the United States Supreme Court.
The measure's two thorniest issues remain the same ones that caused so much disagreement last year, when a similar measure came within a gnat's eyelash of victory: It succumbed when Congress narrowly failed to override a presidential veto.
One is the so-called quota question. The Democratic proposal requires employers who are sued to justify any employment practices that have a negative effect on groups of employees or applicants - for instance, requirements for academic degrees.
The Bush administration, small businesses, and some congressional Republicans argue that employers thus would be forced to hire quotas of minorities. Sponsors of the measure deny this. Many political observers say congressional passage of the Democratic bill as written would give Republicans a powerful weapon in the 1992 election - the explosive quotas charge.
The second issue is whether persons intentionally discriminated against should be able to sue for an unlimited amount. Existing law allows persons victimized by racial discrimination to sue for an unlimited amount; the new proposal would permit women and members of minority religions to do likewise.
The Bush administration and business groups oppose the limitless amount; in its own bill the administration seeks a $150,000 cap.
In Washington it is widely felt that White House chief of staff John Sununu, the designated Bush administration lightning rod for liberal criticism, is largely responsible for pressuring Business Roundtable's Robert Allen into breaking off the talks. Mr. Sununu asked ``whether they were selling out the Republican Party,'' says Ornstein: ``This had to do with politics, not policy.''
But there are deeper reasons why congressional Democrats are having a harder time building a civil rights coalition this year than during the last Congress. One is ``the strengthening of the administration in the country and in Congress'' as the result of the successful war in the Gulf, says Douglas Besharov, a social scientist who specializes in domestic issue. This strengthening is reflected in the breakdown of the talks.
``In general, the president's judgment is considered much more valid'' now than before the Gulf war, both by members of Congress and the public, Mr. Besharov says, noting Mr. Bush's high approval rating. The president opposes the Democratic bill as written.
A second, Ornstein says, is a deepening private concern among some congressional Democrats that they should be spending less time on civil rights and more on measures that will directly improve the lot of the poor - medical care and jobs, for instance.
``It's a question of agendas,'' he says: Though few will discuss the issue publicly, a lot of thoughtful Democrats are saying, ``Why are we spending so much time on this'' instead of doing something directly about the problems of the ghetto poor.
The whole civil rights issue was so important to House Democratic leaders that they made sure it was the very first bill introduced this year: HR1. By some accounts the proposal may be losing support among Democrats, with the difficulty of combating an exceptionally popular president or reaching agreement with business opponents.
In the Senate the idea seems to have less support than last year. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, sponsor of the main bill last year, has yet to introduce one this year.
Sen. John Danforth (R) of Missouri, who last year played a key role in developing a Senate compromise on the so-called quota issue, is now discussing an alternative proposal. Some Southern Democrats also are discussing alternatives.