THE turbulent history of decades of civil rights struggle washed around Capitol Hill this week. The current vehement debate, which involves President George Bush and Congress and revolves around the quota question, echoes with the passions and politics of the past. On the surface this year's struggle is an effort by civil rights advocates to reverse several recent decisions by the United States Supreme Court, so that minorities and women can more easily sue their employers if discriminated against in the workplace.
But the issues run much deeper and involve moral rectitude, the views of the average American, and politics.
The current contest now moves from the House of Representatives to the Senate, where Republican-led compromise may be possible. Wednesday the House approved a Democratic-sponsored civil rights measure 273 to 158, a dozen votes shy of the two-thirds needed to push the bill past President Bush's threatened veto.
A key provision of this and competing proposals, including one by the president, would shift back to employers responsibility for proving that a business necessity exists for a challenged employment practice. The House-backed measure would also allow women and people with disabilities to collect punitive damages if discriminated against at work.
Proponents of the House-passed bill say it would help blacks and women combat discrimination in hiring and promoting. Opponents, including the president, say American businesses would be virtually forced to hire on a quota system to avoid court suits, even though the measure asserts otherwise.
Each side knows that a year from now both congressional and presidential elections will be in full swing: Which stance will gain the most votes?
In wrestling with the issue, Congress is trying to reassert its primacy over civil rights questions after more than a quarter century during which the federal courts took the lead in affecting civil rights.
During the mid-1960s, when civil rights marches and anti-black violence in the South inflamed passions throughout America, Congress passed a series of laws guaranteeing blacks the right to equality in employment, interstate travel, and access to hotels and restaurants.
Since that time the Supreme Court has issued a series of rulings which first expanded, then began to limit, the job-discrimination remedies available under existing laws.
Last year the focus returned to Congress when Democrats passed a civil rights bill much like this year's House proposal. Bush vetoed the bill, and Congress narrowly failed to override the veto.
This year House Democrats sought to secure the two-thirds majority needed to override another anticipated veto. The vote was originally scheduled for Tuesday, but as it approached it appeared that House Democratic leaders did not have enough votes; both amendment tallies ultimately fell short by at least 15 votes, and the final count for passage was more than a dozen votes shy of the two-thirds level.
The prospect thus loomed for another government stalemate: Democratic-controlled Congress passing Democratic-crafted civil rights measures, Republican President Bush vetoing them, and the measures dying because Congress could not override.
That possibility suddenly thrust moderate Senate Republicans, led by Missouri's John Danforth, into the key role - just as Senate Republicans, led by Illinois's Everett McKinley Dirksen, had played the pivotal role a quarter of a century ago.
On Tuesday Senator Danforth and eight Republican colleagues offered three bills, designed as a compromise, to reverse Supreme Court decisions without resulting in quotas.
Congressional opinions differ on whether the quota issue is legally significant, but it has nonetheless been the subject behind fierce partisanship.
President Bush's raising of quotas "is a dangerous level of polarization using race-baiting and fear," says the Rev. Jesse Jackson, shadow senator from the District of Columbia.
The Republicans' emphasis on quotas is part of a "fairly successful strategy" they have used since the 1960s to control the White House by building a coalition of Southern whites and working-class Northern whites, insisted Rep. William Gray (D) of Pennsylvania, House Democratic whip.
Republicans fired back. President Bush charged that "interest groups" wanted a "political win ... to grind me into the political dirt."
Senate Republican leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas accused Democrats of "raw cynical politics" in their civil rights effort.
The key question is: Would the House-approved measure effectively require employers to use quotas to avoid lawsuits?
Opponents say it would: "This bill codifies racial preferences," insisted Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois.
Proponents of the measure insisted it would not: "This whole quota issue is a big, big bugaboo that is being used as a code word" for race, charged Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado.
Not so, insisted Rep. Joel Hefley (R) of Colorado: "If you hire by quota, you face a lawsuit. If you don't hire by quota, you still face a lawsuit."