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Women, Liberals Pressure Clinton Debate Over Affirmative Action Intensifies As Decision Nears

Thu., March 16, 1995

Raising their voices in the stormy debate over affirmative action, liberal Democrats and women’s advocates pressed President Clinton on Wednesday to resist political pressure to retreat.

“We will not be eliminated from this debate,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority.

In White House meetings, Capitol Hill speeches and a march across Pennsylvania Avenue, allies of Clinton and his party intensified their lobbying as the president neared the end of his review of federal programs that favor minorities.

Affirmative action threatens to become a key issue in the 1996 campaign, with Clinton needing support from the liberal wing of his party even as he casts himself as a centrist Democrat not beholden to the left.

Some of his visitors walked away confident that Clinton will not roll back. But he also faced skepticism and frustration from some old political friends, showing how difficult the issue has become.

“He indicated clearly that as it now stands, there is insufficient basis for abolishment of affirmative action,” said Willie Brown, speaker of the California Legislature, after a private meeting with Clinton.

And Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, said White House officials assured women’s advocates that Clinton supports affirmative action programs based on gender.

But Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said minorities and women no longer will stand with Clinton and his party if affirmative action is abandoned. “No party is so important that we will belong to it if it undermines us on this issue. No president is so important that we will belong to him if he undermines us on this issue.”

And Ireland said, “I am disturbed that we don’t have a clear, firm statement already.” She added, “Words are cheap and words are easy inside a closed conference room.”

In announcing his review last month, Clinton promised to emphasize “need-based” programs, raising fears that some based on race or gender could be sacrificed.


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