Congress wants more distance between Reagan and rights panel

The US Commission on Civil Rights, official critic of the nation's civil rights performance, soon may find its freedom of speech guaranteed. It appears likely that pending congressional legislation to extend the commission's life will once and for all move the panel out of the reach of the White House.

First founded as a temporary agency in 1957, the six-person commission is ostensibly independent. By law its membership must be bipartisan.

But commission reviews of White House actions have in the past irritated a number of presidents, who retaliated by firing commissioners. In 1972 Richard Nixon disposed of a commission chairman, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh.

President Reagan, in particular, has found the panel as pesky as a mosquito that refuses to stop buzzing around his ears. Among other things, the Civil Rights Commission has issued a report labeling Reagan administration school desegregation policies unconstitutional, and it has denounced the White House stand on affirmative action.

Commission press conferences routinely dissolve into an ad-hoc debate, with chairman Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., a Reagan appointee, on one side, and everyone else on the other.

''I don't get much cooperation around here,'' groused Mr. Pendleton in a recent interview.

The administration, after several abortive attempts to send Pendleton some reinforcements, finally launched a serious assault on the commission last spring.

Reagan announced he was firing the three most liberal commissioners, appointing in their places three civil rights veterans who share the President's distaste for affirmative-action quotas.

At the same time, Reagan installed Linda Chavez as staff director, a position that does not need congressional OK.

Currently, commission members do serve at the pleasure of the President, so Reagan's action was clearly legal. But critics, angry at what they term an unprecedented assault on the commission's independence, so far have managed to block a Senate Judiciary Committee vote on the new nominees.

Meanwhile, the commission's congressional authorization expired on Sept. 30, technically putting it out of business. Congress must pass reauthorization legislation by December to keep the panel from dissolving for good.

Such bills currently being considered would ensure that no future president could fire commissioners at will.

The House, in fact, has already passed a bill that would extend the commission's life five years and allow commission members to be fired only for incompetence. The administration finds this idea unpalatable - but a compromise seems to be brewing in the Senate.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a proposal to expand the Civil Rights Commission to eight members, who would serve staggered terms of six years. The panel also would be permanently authorized.

Such a move would immediately give the White House two slots to fill. It would also ensure that commissioners couldn't be fired before their term expired.

Administration officials have reportedly accepted the basic shape of the compromise. But a Republican Senate source says the White House is holding out for three new appointments, instead of two.

''The sticking point is the rabbi,'' he says, referring to Rabbi Murray Saltzman, a commission member who has already served more six years. The White House would like him to step down as part of the compromise.

That would open seats for all of the administration's pending nominees. But another Senate staffer, who participates in the negotiations on the subject, warns that the deal may yet stall.

''Things are very much fluid,'' he says.

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