Working with exceptional speed and bipartisan harmony, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday cleared President Carter's government reorganization authority bill for floor action, with only minor modifications in its terms.
The unanimous 16-to-0 vote indicated swift approval for the measure in the full Senate, which is likely to act on the measure the week of March 7. House committee considertaion begins on Tuesday.
As worked out in yesterday's two-hour session, the bill would give Carter authority for the next three years to submit reorganization plans that would take effect automatically, unless vetoed by the House or Senate within 60 calendar days while Congress is in session.
Under the plan, the President could reshuffle and consolidate functions among subcabinet agencies, but he could not create or abolish Cabinet-level departments or independent regulatory agencies.
Each plan would be limited to a single "logically consistent" area of government. The President could amend his own proposal within 30 days of submission to meet any objections that might be raised in Congress.
The legislation is close to - but not identical with - the bill Carter sent Congress last month as the first step toward fulfillment of one of his main campaign pledges, the reorganization of the executive branch of government.
He had sought a four-yar extension of authority, with no limit on the number of plans he could submit or the range of each plan.
Reorganization authority has been given to Presidents since Harry Truman, but it was allowed to lapse in 1973, during the dispute over presidential powers between Congress and President Nixon.
The echoes of that confrontation shaped yesterday's amicable argument over how broad should be the reorganization powers granted to Carter.
Sens. Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.), Jacob K. Javits (R-N.Y.) and Lee Metcalf (D-Mont.), all veterans of the struggle with Nixon, led the argument against the four-year authority. "I think two years is enough," Javits said.
But Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), supporting Carter, argued that "if you compress this program to two years, it will be a crash program," which a later President will hae to come along and correct. "We have to decide what we're most afraid of," Nunn said, "executive abuse or bad government organization. I'm arguing strongly for trust in the executive and not seeing this in the light of the Watergate obsession."
Skillfully prodded by Chairman Abraham A. Ribicoff (D-Conn.), Nunn and Percy agreed on a compromise for a thre-year authority, from the date of final congressional passage. That will come close to Carter's original goal of authority that will carry through his term.
The other issues in the legislation were also rather easily compromised. Carter had wanted no limit on the subject matter of a single reorganization plan, but the committee decided quickly that each should be confined to a particular policy area.
Carter wanted to eliminate the restriction in the old authority that permitted a President to submit only one plan each 30 days. Committee members, warning of being "inundated" in controversial proposals, voted tentatively at one point to limit him to one plan each 21 days.
But when Nunn protested the restriction, Ribicoff said he was sure Carter would not try to "snow this committee," Ribicoff swung the members behind a proposal from Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) that the committee simply say in the report on the bill that it "expects the administration to consult it on the timing of its proposals."
The Carter bill faces more serious problems in the House, where Government Operations Committee Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) has submitted legislation of his own, requiring affirmative action by both houses of Congress to approve each reorganization plan.
But a majority of the members of Brooks' committee are sponsoring the Carter bill, and Democratic officials thing it will prevail on the floor.