Prepare for an Uncivil Battle on Civil Rights

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With a sense of timing that made cynics cringe, President Clinton pushed Saturday for a $695 million hike in civil rights enforcement spending in the 2001 budget. The President made his pitch for the 13 percent increase on the 71st birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a week before the Iowa caucuses officially kick off the 2000 presidential campaign. In his weekly radio address, Clinton cited the murders of gay student Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, a black man killed by white racists in Texas, as evidence that current civil rights laws do not offer adequate protection to a wide enough range of people. The White House wants to expand current hate crime legislation to include violence motivated by gender, disability and sexual orientation.

Clinton's announcement could herald another bloody battle with congressional Republicans, who refused to act on enhanced hate crime legislation in 1999. And while White House spokespeople insist the current civil rights laws do not allow law enforcement officials adequate leeway to prosecute both criminal and civil offenses, some GOP members oppose the increase in spending and legislation in favor of better implementation of existing civil rights laws. The arguments, which promise to continue well into the presidential campaign season, almost precisely mirror the ongoing gun control debate, with proponents arguing for a wider range of laws and opponents leaning toward more efficacious implementation of laws already on the books. And much in the manner of the gun control battle, it may turn out that neither side in the clash over the breadth of civil rights protections will ever be disheartened enough to concede defeat — or sufficiently mollified to declare victory.