Joining a growing national movement, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole distanced himself Thursday from his longstanding support of affirmative action and introduced a bill that would outlaw dozens of federal programs aimed at helping women and minorities compete for contracts, jobs and education.
“For too many of our citizens, our country is no longer the land of opportunity - but a pie chart, where jobs and other benefits are often awarded not because of hard work or merit but because of someone’s biology,” the Kansas Republican said.
Dole’s announcement moves him further to the right in an internal GOP debate over whether, and how strongly, the party should oppose affirmative action. The front-runner in the race for the party’s presidential nomination, Dole appears to have decided to forfeit some moderate Republican support in exchange for the votes of conservatives who are impatient and resentful of preferences for women and minorities.
The bill, dubbed the Equal Opportunity Act of 1995, says no federal agency “may grant a preference … based in whole or in part on race, color, national origin or sex.” It would not affect private businesses or schools that voluntarily attempt to recruit more women and minorities.
Dole and Rep. Charles Canady, a Florida Republican who is sponsoring a twin bill in the House, introduced their proposal just eight days after President Clinton strongly endorsed keeping affirmative action programs in place. Canady said there will be a hearing on the bill in September.
A White House spokeswoman, Ginny Terzano, said the administration has “a fundamental disagreement with his position on this issue.” She added: “Affirmative action does work.”
The two Republicans were joined by a handful of groups representing women and minorities who hailed the idea of scrapping federal affirmative action as a way to unite social factions and establish a true meritocracy.
Milton Bins, chairman of the African-American Republican group Council of 100, said the bill would “remove a major roadblock, group preferences, that divide and balkanize Americans along racial, ethnic and gender lines.”
But civil rights leaders condemned the bill.
“We cannot permit Senator Dole to turn back the hands of time in order to bolster his fledgling presidential campaign,” said Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Though he did not take any questions from reporters Thursday, Dole conceded in a statement he read aloud that his proposal represents a 180-degree turn from his previous votes for federal programs intended to give women and minorities an edge.
“Now I have an admission to make. While I have questioned and opposed group preferences in the past, I have also supported them,” Dole said. “That’s my record and I am not hiding from it.”
“But many of us who supported these policies never imagined that preferences would become a seemingly permanent fixture in our society,” he added.
Canady said the bill is intended to complement the recent Supreme Court decision, known as Adarand, that raised the level of legal scrutiny that must be applied to government programs that provide opportunities based on race. He quoted one of the court’s conservative justices, Antonin Scalia, who wrote in a separate concurrence to the majority opinion: “In the eyes of the government, we are just one race here. It is American.”
But critics said the bill would go further than the Adarand decision because it would outlaw even those programs that could survive the higher legal standard. Moreover, the bill would eliminate some measures now in place to remedy past discrimination, they said.
Ralph Neas of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, said he was “profoundly sad and disappointed” by Dole’s abandonment of affirmative action.
“Even presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush repeatedly rejected this type of Draconian and dangerous measure,” he added.
Dole’s move to the right comes after the Senate last week defeated, 61-36, a similar but more narrow proposal from presidential rival Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, that would have eliminated all government set-asides for minority contractors.
In California, another presidential contender, Gov. Pete Wilson, is pushing to eliminate all state affirmative action programs and last week won a battle to get the University of California to end its preferences for minorities.
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