Senate antibusing vote start of civil rights retreat?

US Senate action this week to curb school busing may not touch the hundreds of school systems that have long been desegregated. But it brings home the new conservative mood of the nation.

Even as the new Republican majority prepared to take over leadership of the Senate in January, that chamber voted 51 to 35 to prevent the US Department of Justice from bringing or joining lawsuits that would require busing to desegregate schools. The House had earlier approved such a ban, which is attached to an appropriations bill covering the US Department of State, Justice, and Commerce.

States' rights supporter Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, co-sponsor of the measure, has for years had to stand back while liberal colleagues ran the show. Now he finds the tables turned. In January he will take over as head of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, and he has announced that he would like to repeal the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and have a law passed eliminating all federal court jurisdiction over local education.

He has repeatedly said that he does not favor "discrimination," but that he opposes forced busing.

The amendment reads: "Nothing in this section shall be interpreted to prevent the Department of Justice from initiating or participating in litigation to secure remedies -- except busing -- for violation" of rights guaranteed in the First and 14th Amendments.

Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D) of Maryland, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, says the measure has "grave"implication, but not necessarily because of busing -- which he concedes even some black parents dislike.

The action is symbolic, according to Mr. Mitchell. "This is but the first such move," he said, adding that Congress could now try to turn back the clock of fair employment and fair housing.

Although Congress already has forbidden the US department of Education to using busing to desegrate public schools, this is the first time that an antibusing proposal has passed both houses. It now goes to a conference committee where differences between the House and Senate versions will be resolved.

President Carter, who opposes the antibushing rider, could veto it -- a move supported by US Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti -- and face a confrontation with Congress during the waning days of his presidency. But he is also likely to sign the law because it includes budget appropriations for three key federal departments. If he does so, it is with the understanding that the antibusing amendment is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced anyway.

"I do believe there's a substantial question of constitutionality," said James M. Nabrit III, associate counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He said that his group, which has brought hundreds of civil rights suits, would be likely to challenge the law in court.

The Justice Department currently is involved in 500 school desegregation cases nationwide, and it is not clear if these cases would be included by the ban or if only future cases would be affected. Private groups still would be able to sue school system to achieve racial balance, and courts could still order busing.

"The Department of Justice has played a constructive role" during recent Democratic administrations, Mr. Nabrit said. But he said that even without the antibusing rider, the Reagan administration might follow the Republican tradition of lying low on desegregation.

Latest figures released by the US Civil Rights Commission estimate that 4 percent of the total 40 million school students (for 1978- 79) were bused for desegregation purposes.

The Civil Rights Commission paints a picture of mixed success for ending school segregation. Throughout the country, almost half of the minority pupils still attend segregated schools. The most severe problems are in the northeast and north central big cities

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