The antibusing bill passed by the Senate Tuesday would prohibit federal courts from ordering that students be bused more than five miles or 15 minutes from their homes for racial reasons. The Washington Post reported this incorrectly in yesterday's early editions.
The Senate, after months of delay and emotional debate, yesterday passed, 57 to 37, the most restrictive antibusing bill ever approved by either chamber of Congress.
The bill, which some critics say is unconstitutional, virtually would outlaw busing as a tool to desegregate public schools by prohibiting federal courts from ordering that students be bused more than five miles or 15 minutes from their homes for racial reasons.
Though conservatives hailed the vote as a major victory, the legislation still must go to the House, which has approved a milder version, and where leaders have indicated that they will resist the Senate language.
"This legislation will not be enacted into law this session of Congress," said Sen. Lowell P. Weicker (R-Conn.), who led a nine-month filibuster against the measure. He said busing opponents "have burned up 14 minutes of the last quarter and only gained about five yards. And that is a long way from the goal line."
The long and emotionally taxing battle over the anti-busing measure also raised questions about prospects for a series of other so-called conservative social issues, such as abortion, school prayer and the death penalty. Weicker and a small band of liberals have pledged to filibuster each of these.
"It will be exceedingly difficult to pass that kind of legislation in this Congress," Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), a sponsor of the antibusing provisions, told reporters.
Twenty-four Democrats, mostly from the North and East, joined 13 Republicans in voting against the bill; 23 Democrats and 34 Republicans voted for it.
Johnston, during debate, called busing "a great, even noble, experiment" that "simply didn't work."
He predicted that the legislation, cosponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), would enhance support for public schools and lead to the return to public schools "of some of the best and brightest" students who deserted them because of busing.
Opponents said the bill would violate the Constitution precisely because it would restrict the courts' power to interpret the Constitution; the courts have generally issued their busing orders on constitutional grounds. Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) said it would make a "dart board" of the Constitution, and mark "the beginning of the end of constitutional guarantees in this country."
"Busing is not the issue," he shouted in the almost empty chamber. "The issue is whether we are going to remain a free nation, devoted to the sanctity of the Constitution."
The antibusing legislation was attached as a rider to a $2.45 billion Justice Department authorization bill. It has been condemned by opponents ranging from civil rights groups through the American Bar Association to Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.).
Bar association President David R. Brink called yesterday's action "a first step to serious damage to our Constitution, our system of government and our identity as a nation . . . . Today the subject was busing. Next it could be our freedom of speech or freedom of religion."
In the House, Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) has several alternatives: he can sit on the bill, refer it to the Judiciary or Rules committees or place it on the House calendar under a suspension of the rules. Any member also can bring it directly to the floor if he secures unanimous consent.
The Judiciary Committee has been extremely hostile to such measures in the past. Yesterday Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) said the legislation was unconstitutional, and asked the Justice Department, which hasn't taken a position, to offer an opinion on it.
The measure, he said, "is without precedent in its severe restrictions on federal courts."
The antibusing measure passed the Senate with broad bipartisan support, which proponents said indicated the low regard in which busing is held. Virginia's two senators voted for final passage. Maryland's two senators voted against it.
Besides the mileage and time restrictions, the Senate bill would bar the Justice Department from asking federal judges to use busing as a desegregation remedy. Under an amendment approved, 73 to 21, before the final vote, the Justice Department also would be permitted to seek the removal or reduction of busing orders already in effect.
This could lead to the overturning of scores of existing court-ordered busing plans around the nation, including those in force in Prince George's County and Richmond. Voluntary plans adopted elsewhere for fear of court orders also could be affected.