Washington — The former teacher and school superintendent of Edgefield County, S.C., who has risen to senior Republican in the US Senate, peers from a leather-upholstered chair across his crystal-chandeliered "hideaway" Capitol office just off the Senate floor.
"I think," says Sen. J. Strom Thurmond, "you'll find next year that I'll be introducing a bill to remove the entire field of education from the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court."
He mentions it as casually as if he were talking about a measure to congratulate the Clemson University football team.
But the proposed bill, as he goes on to explain, would have the sweeping effect of plucking away from the high court two issues on which its decisions have frustrated the conservative movement in recent years -- prayer in pub lic schools and the busing of students for racial balance.
Such a bill might not succeed (a similar one was defeated in the Senate in 1976), but the fact that it will be introduced by the man due to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in January dramatizes the sharp changes that may lie in store when the Senate switches from Democratic to Republican control for the first time in 26 years.
Nowhere, perhaps, will the shift be more striking than on the judiciary panel. The committee that, along with its counterpart in the House of Representatives, helped write the landmark civil rights laws of the 1960s outlawing discrimination in public accomodations, employment, housing, and voting, will be headed by a senator who fought their enactment and now suggests reexamining them.
The laws unfairly target the South, Senator Thurmond says, and perhaps ought to be redirected more nationwide in their thrust, to make them "constitutional."
"We're going to keep these matters in mind when the laws come up for review or revision," says the senator, a man with the Deep South tan, square-shouldered military bearing, and scrupulous politeness befitting someone who has been a Southern political institution for 34 years.
He suggests that groups voicing concern over his impending stewardship of the nation's civil rights laws, notably blacks and civil libertarians, look at his recent record.
The avowedly segregationist governor of South Carolina from 1947 to 1951 and presidential candidate in 1948 of the States' Rights Party now sends a daughter to a racially integrated school, has blacks on his Washington staff, and is endorsed by black mayors and college presidents in South Carolina.
"I'm against discrimination," he says.
With Thurmond as chairman, the committee that worked with President Carter to confirm record numbers of minority-group and women judges to the federal bench apparently will be fastidious in checking the qualifications of such nominees.
While noting that none of the panel's Republican voted in committee against any of the black nominees, Thurmond contends: "We approved a lot of mediocre judges."
As chairman, he vows to "investigate carefully and approve high professional qualifications." But he also suggests reinstating the hoary tradition -- scrapped two years ago -- of giving senators veto power over judgeships in their home states.
In recent years, under Democratic chairmen (most recently Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts), the Judiciary Committee has helped resist efforts to amend the US Constitution to nullify Supreme Court decisions on such emotionally divisive issues as abortion and school prayer. Now it will be led by a Republican chairman who is strongly sympathetic to these efforts.
Thurmond's chief reservation about such constitutional amendments seems to be that they take too long. Simple congressional statutes banning abortion and declaring education issues off-limits to the Supreme Court, he claims, would "do it quicker."
Under the South Carolina senator's leadership, the Judiciary Committee's approach to combating crime may take on a harder edge. thurmond advocates the death penalty for murder kidnapping, and treason ("to influence states that don't yet have one"), mandating speedier trials, and revising laws "hampering" police, such as, perhaps, restrictions on confessions.
Though Kennedy and Thurmond are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the latter says they have forged "a good working relationship." When they switch seats in January, the arrangement is likely to survive."
"I cooperated with him," says the chairman-to-be, "and I expect he'll cooperate with me."