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Compromise on civil rights panel leaves administration with a bitter aftertaste

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The issue of civil rights continues to nag the Reagan administration. In the past, White House civil rights policies have at times seemed to many to be ill-planned and heavy-handed. The President's support of tax exemptions for segregated private schools, for instance, infuriated many minority groups.

Now, in the latest development on the subject, a White House attempt to quiet the United States Commission on Civil Rights has been outflanked by Congress.

"It's a clear-cut victory for the civil rights community," gloats Arthur Flemming, who was chairman of the commission until fired by Reagan in 1981.

The Civil Rights Commission, first founded as a temporary agency in 1957, is the official critic of the nation's civil rights performance. It investigates trends, issues reports, and recommends ameliorative actions.

A majority of its current members disagree with the administration's opposition to busing and affirmative action. Over the last three years, the commission has issued a number of reports lambasting these and other White House rights policies.

Last spring the administration launched a strike intended to neutralize this hotbed of opposition. Mr. Reagan announced he was firing the three most liberal commissioners, and appointing in their place three veterans of the civil rights wars who shared his distaste for affirmative-action quotas.

Since commissioners serve at the pleasure of the President, the White House claimed the action was clearly legal. But critics claimed Congress intended the civil rights panel to be an independent watchdog, and that the firings subverted this purpose. (On Monday, a federal judge agreed with the administration's critics, and issued a temporary injunction barring the firings.)

A standoff developed, with the commission's fate hanging in the balance, since its authorization expired in early fall. But the standoff was broken last week when it became clear the Republican-controlled Senate was prepared to defy the President over the issue.


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