The U.S. Civil Rights Commission apparently was reconstituted, saving it from oblivion, just before midnight last night in a compromise between Senate negotiators and the White House.
The agreement calls for a new eight-member commission, with four appointees designated by the president and four by the Congress.
White House counselor Edwin Meese III, traveling with President Reagan in Japan, approved the arrangement in a long-distance telephone conference a few minutes before midnight with Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.).
"I am happy to report a compromise that's agreeable to major civil-rights groups and the White House," Baker announced on the Senate floor at 12:25 this morning. "We ought to do it before it gets away from us."
Baker quickly sought a Senate vote to seal the bargain, but hopes of quick passage of the compromise were dashed when Sen. Roger W. Jepsen (R-Iowa) said he wanted to offer a right-to-life amendment to the measure the Senate was debating. As a result, a final vote cannot occur until Monday.
Part of the agreement calls for reappointment of Mary Frances Berry and Blandina C. Ramirez, two of three holdover Democratic commissioners fired by Reagan last month, as two of the four congressional members of the new panel. Jill Ruckleshaus, a GOP member of the commission, and another Republican to be designated, would complete the congressional appointees.
Reagan's appointees, it was understood, would include two of the three Democrats he unsuccessfully nominated last May--Morris Abram and John Bunzel--and Mary Louise Smith, another GOP member of the commission, and commission Chairman Clarence M. Pendleton Jr.
The six-member commission, established in 1957, will die Nov. 29, caught in a dispute between the White House and Congress over Reagan's unprecedented efforts to assert control over the traditionally independent agency.
The compromise almost collapsed last night, sources said, when Meese balked at the portion of the plan to permit removal of members of the new commission only for cause.
But he gave in, sources said, on the conference call after being reminded that Reagan himself had endorsed that principle last week in a letter to Baker. In it, Reagan had called for enactment of a House-passed bill reauthorizing the current commission.
The Senate voted 79 to 5 early today to approve the compromise as a substitute for a bill passed by the House in August in a vain effort to prevent Reagan from firing the holdover Democrats.
The president ousted them anyway on Oct. 24, producing a drumbeat of congressional complaints that he had destroyed the commission's independence and integrity.
The compromise would create what Dole called "a sort of hybrid" commission, authorized for six years. The commissioners would hold staggered terms of as long as six years and could be removed only for cause by their respective appointing bodies.
Four would be appointed by the president, two by the speaker of the House and two by the president pro tem of the Senate.
Under the plan, spearheaded by Dole, Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the president would appoint the chairman, vice chairman and staff director of the new commission "with the concurrence of a majority of the commission."
At a news conference after the vote, Biden voiced confidence that the measure will move quickly through the Senate and House. He said that all of the key House legislators have been apprised of the plan and that "they're all signed on."
"There's no question on the House side," he said. "It's solid."
Specter said that essentially "it's the same commission as before. The only difference is in the appointing authorities. The employes, their rights and benefits will all remain the same."
The proposal also was cleared by White House counsel Fred F. Fielding and does not pose constitutional difficulties, Specter said.