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AFFIRMATIVE ACTION PROGRAM UPHELD IN U.S. SENATE VOTE.

Byline: Lawrence M. O'Rourke Scripps-McClatchy Western Service

In the first congressional test this year for affirmative action, the Senate on Friday voted to continue a 15-year-old program that helps women and minorities win federal contracts to build and repair highways.

The Senate voted 58-37 to retain a provision first signed into law by President Reagan that sets aside 10 percent of federal highway money for bidding by traditionally underrepresented groups.

``This program is about assuring every American, regardless of their background, wherever they are from, that they will have a fair chance as small-business owners to participate in this very important highway program,'' Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told the Senate.

``This program is so flexible that no state has ever been fined, no state has ever been reprimanded for not meeting the goal, because there is no quota; there is a goal,'' Boxer said.

But Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who led the fight to end the set-aside program, said it gives women and minorities a clear preference that violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the law.

``It's clear that preference programs are going to die hard in this country,'' McConnell said after the vote. ``The people and the courts are ahead of Congress on race-based preferences.''

Voting to retain the program were 43 Democrats - including Boxer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. - and 15 Republicans. Voting to kill the advantage were 36 Republicans and one Democrat.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, who urged his fellow Republicans to start ending affirmative action programs, said: ``The American people do feel strongly about it. They oppose quotas and set-asides and timetables.''

Asked why almost all Democrats and 15 Republicans supported construction set-asides, Lott said, ``Maybe it will take an election to get them in tune with America.''

The set-aside program is part of the bill to spend $173 billion on highway construction and repair over the next six years.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a supporter of set-asides, pointed out that Reagan agreed to the idea 15 years ago after government efforts failed to reach goals for participation in highway projects by companies owned by women, as well as racial and ethnic minorities.

To kill the program, said Kennedy, would return the highway construction business to ``the good old boys' club.''

Boxer said new rules for the program require that all participants must be economically disadvantaged, even if they are women or minority group members.

``Wealthy individuals, whether they are white, whether they are black, whether they are brown, whether they are women, none of them can participate in the program if they are not disadvantaged,'' Boxer said.

Her description of the program was challenged by Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., who said the set-aside program ``would allow the Sultan of Brunei, the richest man in the world, to be considered economically disadvantaged.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 7, 1998
Words:471
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