In its first test on controversial social issues this year, the Senate yesterday overwhelmingly approved legislation that would severely restrict the authority of federal judges to order busing to desegregate public schools.
The measure, approved 58 to 38, would prohibit courts from ordering the busing of students more than five miles or 15 minutes from their homes for the purpose of integration.
It includes a retroactive provision that could lead to the overturning of scores of existing court-ordered busing plans around the nation, including those now in force in Prince George's County, Md., and Richmond, Va. Story on Page A7
The amendment, sponsored by Sens. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) and Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), is the most stringent antibusing legislation ever approved by either chamber of Congress. It also would prohibit the Justice Department from pursuing any school integration plan that involves busing.
The vote marked the opening round of what is expected to be a series of confrontations this year over the so-called conservative social issues, such as abortion, school prayer, and the death penalty.
But it is unclear whether the antibusing amendment, which is attached to a Justice Department authorization bill, will ever become law.
A small band of opponents, led by Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.), vowed to continue delaying tactics to prevent final passage of the measure, which they maintain is a blatantly unconstitutional attempt by Congress to infringe on the powers of the judiciary.
Weicker charged yesterday that the amendment is part of an "absolute rout" of America's commitment to civil rights during the Reagan era. "There is no end to this mischief once it starts," he said.
Weicker, who has been filibustering against busing restrictions since last June, pounded his fists rapidly on his desk, and declared that the bill "will not become law . . . . The Constitution of this country is going to be exactly the same on Dec. 31, 1982, as it is today."
Speaking before an almost empty Senate chamber, he heatedly added that it was time his colleagues "show your face, not your butt, to the world."
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said he had opposed busing in Detroit, but he believes it has worked in some other areas. "I dislike busing, but I like the Constitution even more," he added.
Johnston, the only senator to speak in behalf of the amendment, accused critics of trying to obscure debate by talking about "courage and the Constitution" instead of busing.
"There is a reason my opponents don't defend busing," he declared. "There is no evidence to support it.
"Long-distance busing is a leech on the educational system of this country," Johnston added moments later. "Public support for education is gone with long-distance busing."
The amendment was supported by 20 Democrats and 38 Republicans. Twenty-five Democrats and 13 Republicans, most from the northeastern and midwestern states, voted against it. Virginia's two senators voted for it, Maryland's two senators against.
"The people prevailed," Helms said after the vote. A final vote on the authorization bill is expected next week, although Weicker claimed he has prepared 300 amendments to delay action further.
The House last year approved a less stringent amendment to the same authorization bill that would prohibit the Justice Department from entering any action that would require the busing of any child beyond a neighborhood school.
Under the Senate amendment, the Justice Department is authorized to go into court to overturn any existing busing plan where students are bused more than the proposed limit of five miles or 15 minutes from their home. To do so, however, the attorney general would first have to receive a written complaint from parents in affected areas.
This could call into question scores of existing court-ordered busing plans. School officials yesterday contended that any effort to overturn these plans would disrupt schools, and reopen wounds long thought healed