SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-Pa) has come up with a proposal that may resolve a dispute concerning the Civil Rights Commission. The controversy has two aspects: the right of a president to nominate new commissioners and the extension of the life of the commission, now due to expire on Sept. 30.

Some civil rights groups have opposed the president's nomination of replacements for three commissioners now sitting. They argue that the statute creating the commission is silent on the question of terms and tenure of its members so it should be assumed that their appointments are permanent, and designed to be so in order to protect the independence of the commission. The three nominations have not been reported by the Senate Judiciary Committee because this issue has not been resolved. Meanwhile, legislation is proceeding on another track to extend the life of the commission, and this bill gives the president's opponents a bargaining chip.

The House has passed reauthorization legislation that would guarantee permanent appointments to those commissioners now holding office, permitting their replacement only for malfeasance in office. This bill is unacceptable to the president, and probably to a majority of senators. But to sit on this bill and let the commission go out of business is a bad idea. Considering the two issues together--the nominations and the extension--offers an opportunity for compromise.

Sen. Specter proposes that the commission be reauthorized on a permanent basis and that commissioners serve fixed staggered terms of six years. Five of the current commissioners--two appointed by President Reagan and three by President Carter--would continue to serve until they reached the six-year limit. One commissioner, Rabbi Murray Saltzman, who was appointed by President Ford in 1975, would leave office, since he has already served more than six years. This would give President Reagan one new appointment immediately .

The concept of fixed staggered terms is a good one that allows for continuity and independence while it provides each new president with at least a few appointments. The difficult question is the status of commissioners and nominees on the day the new plan goes into effect. Sen. Specter has proposed a reasonable compromise that allows everyone to save face and puts the commission on firm footing for the future.