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McCain Won't Apologize For Vote Against Civil Rights Act

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This past week, Sen. John McCain repented for his decision in 1983 to oppose a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King.

Speaking on the anniversary of King's death, and from the site of his assassination, the Arizona Republican declared that he was "wrong and eventually realized that, in time to give full support for a state holiday in Arizona... We can all be a little late sometimes in doing the right thing, and Dr. King understood this about his fellow Americans."

But while McCain is seeking amends for his King Day vote, he has refused to back down on another controversial decision he made that put him at sharp odds with the civil rights movement.

In 1990, McCain was one of the deciding votes in helping then-President George H.W. Bush sustain a veto against the relatively benign Civil Rights Act of 1990.

In doing so, the senator found himself at odds with majorities in both chambers of Congress, most senior African Americans within the Bush administration, and the Republican-led U.S. Civil Rights Commission. He also helped Bush became the first president ever to successfully veto a civil rights measure -- Andrew Johnson in 1866 and Ronald Reagan in 1988 both had vetoes overridden.

The act was a response to a series of controversial Supreme Court decisions made the year before. In those decisions, the court overturned a 1971 ruling that required employers to prove a "business necessity" for screening out minorities and women in its hiring practices. That burden of proof, the 1989 court said, should instead be placed on the plaintiff who alleged that his or her client had been unlawfully screened.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate, deeming this unjust, passed bills that would restore the old law. But the Bush administration objected, insisting that a reversion to the old way would amount to forcing employers to have hiring quotas. It was a controversial and somewhat dubious claim, one that the New York Times editorial page called "an unjustified charge." After all, the system had worked fine from 1971 through 1989. Nevertheless, the president vetoed the legislation.

When a motion to override the veto came to the Senate floor, there was question as to whether it would receive the 67 votes needed to pass. The environment was so charged that white supremacist David Duke watched from one section of the Senate gallery while civil rights leader Jesse Jackson stood briefly at the chamber's other end.

Ultimately, the vote fell one short: 66 to 34. Prominent Republican Senators like John H Chaffe, John Danforth, Pete Domenici, and Arlen Specter, all chose to override the veto. McCain - who had earlier voted for a watered down version of the bill, one that didn't reverse the court's decision - backed the president.

Nearly two decades later, and on the verge of the 40th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's landmark 1968 Civil Rights Act, McCain stood by his vote. Asked about the decision this past Sunday, he again repeated that the law amounted to a quota system that he historically has opposed.

"The issue in the early '90s was a little more complicated," he told Fox News Sunday. "I've never believed in quotas, and I don't. There's no doubt about my view on that issue. And that was the implication, at least, of that other vote."

It is, critics say, a shaky defense; one that only a third of the Senate felt comfortable holding on to.

As noted by the Times at the time of the bill's debate, opponents could not produce any evidence that the original ruling in 1971 had led to a rash of quotas. And indeed, as Thomas Homburger of the Anti-Defamation League said at the time: his group historically opposes quotas and the Civil Rights Act of 1990 was "simply not a quota bill."