Washington — The Reagan administration has become embroiled in yet another argument over civil rights. This time - in the case of Grove City College vs. Bell - it involves Congress , the United States Supreme Court, and federal punishment of institutions that discriminate. It features Cabinet secretaries at odds, rebellious Republican representatives, and, in general, an atmosphere of confusion.
''This is a self-inflicted political problem,'' claims a liberal activist who closely follows civil rights issues.
When it comes to civil rights, the White House has gotten in trouble before.
Two years ago, administration reluctance to support an extension of the Voting Rights Act raised Congress's ire. Then came the Bob Jones University case , in which the US Justice Department at first backed tax-exempt status for racially discriminatory private schools, then reversed itself after a barrage of criticism.
The current debate revolves around a Supreme Court ruling of Feb. 28. By a 6 to 3 vote, the high court held that the government, if it found a school with a program that discriminated by sex, could only cut off federal aid to that program. It couldn't withhold all of the institution's federal funds.
This represented a dramatic loss of Washington's punishment powers, and members of Congress didn't like it one bit. A number of bills to overturn the decision - that would, in fact, make it clear all federal aid could be denied institutions that discriminated against women, minorities, the elderly, and the handicapped - were quickly introduced.
The leading bill - HR 5490 a.k.a. the Civil Rights Act of 1984 - is moving toward passage faster than a congressman heading for home at recess. It was approved Wednesday by two House committees and already has more than 60 cosponsors in the Senate.
But the White House this week suddenly announced it opposes the bill as too instrusive. Predictably, this decision has annoyed congressional Democrats. Unpredictably, it also does not sit well with Republicans, many of whom support the legislation and feel this is another case of the administration leaping before it looked.
''There will be no veto of this bill,'' says Rep. Claudine Schneider (R) of Rhode Island, in a somewhat theatening tone of voice.
Then again, it is hard to tell how strenuous the White House opposition is, since you get different stories according to which official you listen to.
William Bradford Reynolds, assistant attorney general for civil rights, seemed to indicate Tuesday that he had profound problems with the bill. He told a House panel the legislation would create ''unnecessary tension'' between the principles of civil rights and limited federal intrusion, and that enforcement costs would be ''staggering.'' President Reagan, at his Tuesday press conference , seemed to repeat this position.
But Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell, at a hurriedly called press conference a day later, said his department (and by implication the administration) ''supports a bill to reverse the Grove City decision.''
The problem with the particular bill currently sailing across Capitol Hill, Mr. Bell said, was only that it might require withholding of federal aid from an entire university system (such as the multischool University of California) if one campus had one program that was discriminatory.
''I believe we have a possibility of getting some changes made'' in the civil rights bill that would make it palatable to the White House, Bell said.
Congressional proponents of the bill, however, say even Bell's relatively mild objection isn't valid. Their clear intent, they say, is simply to return the law to the way it was before the Supreme Court handed down the Grove City decision and muddied the waters.
One key supporter of the bill - Rep. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois - did hold out hope that Congress and the White House would eventually agree on the issue. The President, Mr. Simon says, ''clearly hedged'' when objecting to the legislation.