(CNSNews.com) - Before Trent Lott's decision to step down as leader of the Senate last week, the Bush administration appeared increasingly undecided about its position toward affirmative action in a case that will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court next spring.
Now with Lott out of the picture, however, a number of conservatives who are opposed to racial preferences said President Bush should take a firm stand against the practice of considering race in college admissions.
There are actually two cases before the Supreme Court that challenge the University of Michigan admissions policy. No date has been set for oral arguments, but the Justice Department must decide by Jan. 16 whether to file a brief in the case.
Roger Clegg, general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, said Lott's comments initially put Republicans, and the Bush administration in particular, under considerable pressure on issues of race. But Republicans took a noble stand, Clegg said, by pressuring Lott to step down.
"Now that they've gotten rid of Lott, Republicans are actually in a stronger position than before the Lott fiasco to oppose racial and ethnic preferences," he said. "They have great credibility on this issue. They made it clear they take the principle of non-discrimination very seriously and they decided they didn't want a majority leader who lacked credibility on this issue."
Throughout the Lott ordeal, which was prompted by his Dec. 5 endorsement of Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential run, Democrats and civil-rights leaders chastised Republican attitudes toward race. The party's domestic agenda was called into question, eventually leading to Lott's Dec. 20 resignation as majority leader.
With the University of Michigan admission policy heading to the Supreme Court for review this spring, the Bush administration was reportedly split on its position in the case.
Attorney General John Ashcroft and Solicitor General Ted Olsen wanted to take a stand against race-based admissions. Bush's political advisers, however, were concerned that taking such a position could result in a backlash.
Phyllis Berry Myers, executive director of the Centre for New Black Leadership, said the Republican Party has made strides for black Americans that are not recognized often enough. Like Clegg, she predicted the Bush administration would benefit from the Lott episode.
"There needs to be a discussion about affirmative action," Myers said. "Most Americans are opposed to the racial preferences regime that affirmative action has become. I hope the Justice Department files a brief so there can be a continuing discussion about how we provide for equal opportunity in higher education without relying on racial preferences."
Conservatives are not alone trying to prod the Bush administration to take a position in the case. Supporters of affirmative action are lobbying for the University of Michigan's policy.
National Urban League President Hugh B. Price said the Justice Department should either back the university or stay out of the case. He assailed the idea of a friend-of-the-court brief that might attack affirmative action programs, especially in the wake of Lott's comments.
"It makes it tougher for the administration to stand on the side of those who oppose progressive measures like affirmative action," Price said. "This case becomes quite a litmus test for where they stand. I realize there are a lot of ideological stakes involved, but there is also heightened sensitivity within the minority community."
Blacks, Price said, would not be the only ones watching the administration in the coming weeks and months. Hispanics and women are also bound to pay attention, he said, since affirmative action plays a role in their lives as well.
Price said Lott's days had been numbered, most notably because Bush could not advance his agenda with Lott in charge of the Senate. Conservatives were also frustrated by Lott's apologies and his endorsement of affirmative action on Black Entertainment Television.
At the same time, however, supporters of affirmative action applauded his comments, including Shirley J. Wilcher, executive director of Americans for a Fair Chance, a consortium made up of groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the National Women's Law Center.
"Senator Lott's position on affirmative action is a welcome voice of support as this issue is poised to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this term," Wilcher said in a statement last week. "As a result of Senator Lott's disclosure, we hope that more members of the GOP and the administration will join us in promoting equal opportunity through affirmative action."
Liberals and Democrats should not expect a massive wave of support for affirmative action, warned Niger Innis, spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality. Innis said he hopes Bush uses the Supreme Court case to highlight and explain his "affirmative access" position that he developed while governor of Texas.
Another important affirmative action decision -- one that did not reach the Supreme Court -- came as a result of University of Texas's admission policy. As governor, Bush implemented an affirmative access program that guarantees the top 10 percent of students in each high school admission to state universities.
Innis said with Lott out of the picture, Bush would be able to advance similar ideas on a national scale.
"As bad as the Trent Lott situation was, it may have benefited President Bush," he said. "He made a moral stand and Republicans made a moral stand that Democrats never made around Bill Clinton. Republicans condemned without question what Lott said, and eventually they pushed him out of leadership. I think that makes Bush look better in the minds of most blacks."
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