Congress adjourned last night until after Labor Day after the House passed a bill that could thwart President Reagan's efforts to fire three members of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
The Senate quit after grid-locking all week on a series of major bills, including an administration-backed freeze of target price payments to grain farms, a revenue-sharing extension and a $7.6 billion Interior Department appropriations bill.
The Senate did, however, come alive long enough at the end to approve an emergency bill with two purposes: to extend and expand the current commodity food distribution program to the poor and to protect more than a dozen states from a sharp reduction this summer in supplemental benefits for the long-term unemployed. The bill was then sent to the House, which approved it by voice vote and sent it to the White House.
The commodity distribution program, passed initially as part of an omnibus jobs bill earlier this year, would be extended for two years at a cost of $50 million. The jobs benefit extension, costing $57 million, would save two to four weeks of benefits for an estimated 14 states that either have lost some of their supplemental benefits or would lose them before the program expires Sept. 30.
The lawmakers will return to work Sept. 12.
Left hanging until then is the $200 billion bill authorizing defense programs for next fiscal year, including the controversial MX missile. Both houses will take up a compromise version worked out in conference last night.
Also left hanging is a $485 million bill to renew and toughen the government's hazardous waste control program. The House made some progress on it, but postponed final action until next month.
In a summing-up of the session thus far, Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) expressed satisfaction. He said the greatest accomplishment of the Democratic-controlled House had been to make the president "sensitive" to issues of "fairness at home and peace abroad."
"He Reagan hasn't had any kind of a victory in the House , except for the MX, in over a year," O'Neill said. "In fact if we in the Democratic leadership hadn't pulled his chestnuts out of the fire on the International Monetary Fund, he would have lost on that." The House Wednesday night agreed to replenish the fund.
The challenge to Reagan's attempts to replace three Civil Rights Commission members came as an amendment to a bill extending the life of the commission for the next five years.
The provision, adopted 286 to 128, would prevent Reagan from removing any commission member except for "neglect of duty or malfeasance in office." If it should become law before the Senate confirms the president's three nominees, it would keep the three holdovers in office. They have open-ended terms.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) called the measure "an infringement on executive power" that no president could accept. "We are inviting a presidential veto," he said.
Reagan could find it difficult to veto the measure, however, and in effect kill the 26-year-old commission. The Civil Rights Commission will go out of business Sept. 30 without a new law extending its life.
The House-passed extension was devised by Democrats led by Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) along with members of the moderate Republican "Wednesday Group." Edwards argued that it was the best way to address the problems raised by Reagan's attempts to remove current commissioners.
Reagan had advocated a 20-year extension of the commission, but the House voted overwhelmingly, 400 to 24, for only five years. It then voted, 286 to 128, for Edwards' amendment to prohibit removals except for neglect of duty; Republicans voted nearly 3 to 1 against this. The bill was then passed by voice vote.
Sensenbrenner tried in vain to win acceptance of a somewhat ambiguous substitute he said was intended to give Reagan the authority to start over again and appoint all six commission members to staggered six-year terms. Sensenbrenner's plan also would have prohibited removals except for "inefficiency, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office," but he said that would not have come into play until the new appointments had been made.
Rebuffed on two voice votes, Sensenbrenner told reporters that he would ask Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) to hold the authorization bill hostage until the Senate confirms Reagan's three new appointees: New York civil rights lawyer Morris Abrams, educator John H. Bunzel and law Prof. Robert A. Destrow.
Reagan announced in May that he was appointing them to replace Mary Frances Berry, former assistant secretary of education under President Carter; Blandina Cardenas Ramirez, a San Antonio educator, and Rabbi Murray Saltzman. Berry and Ramirez were appointed by Carter. Saltzman was named by President Ford. All three said they would continue serving until their successors were confirmed by the Senate.
As a result, while Sensenbrenner said he hopes Republicans will insist that the confirmations in the Senate come first, Democrats will be trying to block the confirmations until the reauthorization bill is passed. It boils down to what Sensenbrenner called "a game of chicken."
In the Senate this week opposition from wheat-state senators derailed a proposed compromise on limiting grain price payments and overhauling dairy price supports. The Interior appropriations bill was blocked by opponents of an effort to aid the default-plagued Washington Public Power Supply System.
Both measures were put off until after Congress returns, as was the Senate's version of House-passed legislation to extend revenue sharing with local governments.
Also pending on the Senate's calendar is a House-passed bill to create a new federal holiday to honor the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Senate marked time waiting for the food and jobless benefits package by passing an assortment of measures, from one honoring the Alabama Department of Agriculture to another commemorating a post office building in Fort Worth.
The House later addressed itself to measures of similar import: National Sewing Month, Youth of America Week and National Housing Week--all coming up this fall.