Senators race clock on women's sports law

A law that is credited with helping American women win gold medals at the Los Angeles Olympics faces high hurdles and a timer that has almost ticked down to zero on Capitol Hill.

With only two weeks to go until adjournment, a bill to reinstate bans on discrimination in sports scholarships and other programs at federally aided institutions has won overwhelming passage in the House and attracted 63 cosponsors in the Senate. But it has a determined foe in Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) of Utah, who could use his filibuster powers to kill the legislation for the current Congress.

At the core of the dispute is whether the bill, known as the Civil Rights Bill of 1984, is breaking new ground. Supporters say it is simply a move to reinstate laws that have been in effect as far back as 1964, but which have been narrowly limited by a recent United States Supreme Court ruling. In that decision, known as the the Grove City College case, the high court found that a school is subject to antidiscrimination bans only in activities that receive direct federal dollars. Ever since that ruling, lawmakers have been attempting to reverse the decision so that the ban applied to entire institutions, not just specific divisions.

''We say we're trying to put the law back where it was,'' says Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon. The new bill contains broad provisions forbidding federally aided institutions from discriminating on the basis of sex, race, age, or handicaps.

The other chief promoter of the bill, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, has announced that the ''clear intention'' is ''to do nothing more than restore the status quo that existed before'' the Grove City case.

But Hatch, who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the issue, holds that the proposed new language would go much further. The Utah senator, carrying a well-marked copy of the Packwood-Kennedy bill, picked apart the provisions in an interview.

''They want to inject their concepts of what is, and is not, discrimination into all aspects of state and local governments in ways that have never been contemplated in the past,'' he said.

He ticked off the problems he foresaw, from prisons being forced to hire women guards for male prisoners to impositions of quotas and requirements that ''mom and pop'' groceries have wide aisles to accommodate wheelchairs. He also worried aloud that some groups might force Roman Catholic clinics to provide abortion services on the basis of the law.

''It's a complex set of problems,'' said the senator, explaining that ''if I seem uptight,'' it was because he has had a difficult time explaining the complexities to others.

Proponents of the bill discount the Hatch arguments, which the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of groups, has labeled ''scare tactics.'' Senator Packwood has released a detailed response that holds that the law would not have the effects charged by Senator Hatch.

The supporters have changed the bill to assure states that federal revenue funds and block grants would not be affected. That move has removed two of the groups that Hatch cites as major allies. The National Governors' Association and the National Association of Counties have both withdrawn their expressions of concern about the legislation. The newest version ''pretty much satisfies us it would eliminate problems for state governments,'' says Bernard Chabel, spokesman for the governors' group.

Meanwhile, with the election and the end of the congressional session coming closer, Senators Kennedy and Packwood are warning colleagues that they will force them to take a stand on the politically sensitive issue. ''The Senate will vote,'' Kennedy said last week. He added that if the bill fails, the Reagan administration will be blamed.

The two sides and administration officials have attempted to forge a compromise, but so far with no success. ''I think the administration is somewhere between'' the opponents and sponsors, Hatch says. ''I think they would like to settle it.''

Hatch has already agreed to the language banning to sex discrimination in colleges and universities that receive federal aid. That coverage would be clearly defined, he said. It also has popular support, especially since the dramatic showing of American women in Los Angeles.

But Hatch still opposes the rest of the bill, which would cover race, age, and handicap discrimination in a variety of institutions and in businesses that have federal contracts. According to Hatch, the original intent of the law was to apply only to the special programs receiving federal money, not the entire institution. He warned that if he is not satisfied with the final bill, ''I don't have any choice but to try to defeat it with all I have.''

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