March 7, 1998 in Nation/World

Senate Upholds Minority Set-Asides In Highway Bill

David Hess Knight Ridder

U.S. senators turned back a move Friday to repeal a law that guarantees a small share of federal highway contracts to construction firms owned by women and minorities.

After a two-day debate that tested congressional resolve to strip affirmative action from federal programs, the Senate voted 58-37 to kill an amendment that would have nullified a 16-year-old law requiring states to make a good-faith effort to ensure that at least 10 percent of federal highway spending go to “disadvantaged business enterprises.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had labeled the Reagan-era law as an unconstitutional example of quota-driven affirmative action that gives racial and gender preferences on defined groups of Americans. The Kentucky Republican hoped to attach the amendment to a $171 billion highway construction bill now making its way through the Senate.

He said his proposal would “prohibit the highway program from engaging in discrimination or preferential treatment based on skin color or gender.”

But 43 Democrats and 15 Republicans voted to shelve the amendment after arguing the law, which was enacted in 1982 and expanded to include women in 1987, is not quotabased but simply assures a fairer playing field for obtaining government business.

“It’s fair because it helps women and minorities get a seat at the bidding table,” said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., “Not the only seat, not the best seat, but simply an opportunity to compete against equally qualified contractors.”

As the law has worked over the years, the share of federal highway dollars going to female-owned highway contractors has risen to 6.7 percent from 3.1 percent.

Minority-owned contractors get about 6 percent of the value of the contracts.

In l978, four years before the law was passed, women and minorities together got only 2.2 percent of all federal- contract dollars. And in 1979, no federal dollars went to female-owned firms.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who voted to kill McConnell’s amendment, warned his fellow Republicans many women and minorities are turned away by perceptions the GOP is not sympathetic to their problems.

“Our party has much at stake in this debate,” he said before the final vote Friday.

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