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Congress wants more distance between Reagan and rights panel

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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.

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