Senate liberals sang their swan song yesterday as they pushed for approval of new fair housing legislation, only to run into a filibuster by conservative Republicans who will take over control of the Senate next month. c
The bill -- which would give the government broad new enforcement authority in the housing discrimination field -- was passed by the House last summer. But it languished on the Senate calendar for months because of the threat of a GOP filibuster.
The filibuster was quick in coming after Senate Democrats decided at a caucus to make one last attempt to pass the bill before the lame-duck session of the 96th Congress ends later this week. Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) tried to win unanimous consent to take up the bill about an hour later but instead drew objections from Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah).
Byrd promptly filed a cloture petition to force a vote Wednesday on choking off debate on the bill. But time -- as well as the political tide that washed over Congress in the November elections -- appeared to be running in the conservatives' favor. Pro-civil rights senators would have to get 60 votes to end debate on the measure, which is frequently difficult on the first or second attempt, and Congress plans to go home on Friday.
It could be "weeks, months -- I hate to say it -- but even years" before Congress gets this close again to such a major civil rights bill, said Sen. Jacob K. Javis (R-N.Y.), on e of the number of civil rights avocates in the Senate who was defeated in the elections.
Passage of the bill now would help alleviate "fear in the hearts" of many minorities about the impending changes in the White House and Congress, Javits argued.
But Hatch, who could end up chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution, contended that the bill would create "more dissension and racism in America . . . than ever before" because of its enforcement provisions.
The bill, backed by the outgoing Carter administration, would allow the Department of Housing and Urban Development to file bias suits against landlords before an administrative law-judge. The judge, who would be chosen by an independent Fair Housing Review Commission, would have the authority to settle cases, determine remedies and impose fines of up to $10,000.
Currently HUD can only mediate disputes, and the Justice Department can take alleged offenders to court only in limited cases involving a "pattern or practice" of discrimination.
Hatch objected particularly to fining landlords without a trial by jury and to the fact that an intent to discriminate would not have to be proven. The proposal would put the government, he said, in the role of "prosecutor, judge and jury."
Leading the fight on the other side, Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), the outgoing chairmen, respectively, of the Judiciary Committee and its Constitution subcommittee, argued that the 1968 act in which Congress outlawed housing discrimination had turned out to be largely unenforceable because it lacked specific remedies that the new legislation would provide.
The old law was "not worth much more than the paper it was written on," argued Bayh. It had the effect of barring average citizens from seeking relief because of the expense and delay involved in court litigation, contended Kennedy.
The bill, described by its supporters as the most important civil rights legislation in a decade, is one of few major pieces of legislation that the Democratic congressional leadership is attempting to pass in its lame-duck session. Because even many annual appropriations bills will not make it, the House Appropriations Committee yesterday drafted a continuing resolution to provide stopgap funding for many departments and agencies.
The resolution, which the committee sent to the House for action tomorrow, would provide operating funds through June 15. Despite rumors of a rider to provide a last-minute congressional pay raise, it includes language forbidding pay raises for members of Congress, judges, political appointees and super-grade civil servants so long as it stays in effect. It also contains traditional prohibitions against use of funds to perform abortions or to bar voluntary prayers from public schools.
Senate Republicans will vote today on their leaders for the 97th Congress.
Minority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) is expected to be chosen as majority leader, and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Ala.) is in line to keep his job as whip. The only contests are between Sens. John Heinz (R-Pa.) and James A. McClure for chairmanship of the Republican Conference and between Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) for the Republican senatorial campaign committee.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats voted to end the practice whereby some newly elected senators get an edge on seniority when their predecessors retire early and permit them to be appointed to the vacancy in advance. Senate Republicans voted to end the practice last summer.