- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 18, 2003

Senate Democrats made clear yesterday they consider race and civil rights a prime issue, both as part of their long-term agenda and to use against Republicans during this Congress.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, sponsored a forum for Senate Democrats to plan a civil rights agenda for the year.

They laid out a host of things to do, including passing hate crimes legislation, funding election reform and opposing some of the president's judicial nominees.

"Civil rights has always been the great unfinished business of America," Mr. Kennedy said.

Democrats' renewed focus comes a month after Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, was ousted as Senate Republicans' leader for remarks he made that seemed to endorse former Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1948 bid for president on a segregationist platform. Mr. Lott denied that intention.

Democrats also have criticized the president for renominating a judge that Senate Democrats rejected last year, citing his record on civil rights.

But the forum also comes as Democrats combat charges they take black voters' support for granted. Yesterday's event was designed to disprove that, attendees said.

"How are we supposed to think about race when we have the leader of our country on one side and people we trust on the other side," said D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Mr. Daschle immediately put the lessons of the forum into practice, offering a resolution on the Senate floor endorsing the University of Michigan affirmative-action policies that President Bush is opposing before the Supreme Court. The resolution would have directed that a friend-of-the-court brief be filed supporting the policies on behalf of the entire Senate.

"Kind words and lofty rhetoric alone cannot open the doors of educational opportunity or guarantee a diverse student body," Mr. Daschle said. "We must show our commitment through our actions."

But Republicans blocked the resolution, arguing it was just a political ploy and endorsed a bad policy.

"I do not believe the answer to that is by instituting something that discriminates the other way," said Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican. "That's what the University of Michigan system does."

At the Democrats' forum, Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University who was president of the University of Michigan when it instituted the preference policy, defended the policy and criticized the president and other opponents for "a coldness, a harshness in what's being said" on the issue.

He particularly objected to opponents' calling the program a quota.

"I don't know exactly what the president had in mind when he used that term," he said. "We know what a quota is, and we don't do it."

He also said it is "not proper to use the phrase 'the soft bigotry of low expectations,'" which Mr. Bush used during the 2000 presidential campaign to decry failing, predominantly minority schools.

Mr. Daschle laid out a score card for judging Republicans, including: nominating judges who support "our nation's core civil rights laws;" passing a hate crimes law; funding election reform; and "opposing economic policies that will shrink the middle class and increase income disparities."

Still, much of Democrats' agenda for civil rights mirrored standard Democratic priorities.

Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, said he will pursue a bill for a moratorium on executions as part of the civil rights agenda, while another panel moderator, Robert Raben, president of the D.C. chapter of the Hispanic National Bar Association, called for the agenda to include protection of abortion rights and gun-control laws, among others.

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