HOW DOES A straightforward civil rights bill get tied up in a procedural morass and wind up on the already overloaded continuing resolution? The bill, which would overturn the Supreme Court decision in the Grove City case, is supported by a broad coalition of civil rights groups. The Supreme Court held in Grove City that a college that discriminates against women in one program -- athletics, for example -- can continue to receive federal funds for other programs that are being operated fairly. Before the decision, most legislators believed that they had authorized a cutoff to the entire college in such a case; thus, there was strong support for legislation adopting this view and applying it to other civil rights statutes protecting minorities, the aged and the handicapped. The measure was passed by the House in June on a vote of 375-32 and has 63 Senate cosponsors.

The bill ran into trouble in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but proponents say they were not concerned because Majority Leader Howard Baker had promised to take the House-passed bill from the desk and call it up himself if the Judiciary Committee did not act. Negotiations were begun with the administration to clarify the language of the bill in order to allay fears that it was doing more than restoring the law to what it had been believed to be before.

But, as adjournment day grew closer, proponents realized that the bill would neither be reported nor called up by Sen. Baker unless the administration had agreed to every single provision. This week, therefore, the bill's sponsors persuaded their colleagues that the civil rights bill would be a germane amendment to the continuing resolution. That vote was a signal for the introduction of a flood of other substantive amendments, ranging from gun control to busing, that created the procedural gridlock the Senate faces this morning.

A short-term appropriations bill is not the place for major civil rights legislation, and it is absurd that senators have had to go to this extreme to get a vote on a bill that has 63 cosponsors. The tactic would not have been used if the Senate had been allowed to consider the civil rights bill alone on its merits and without the extraordinary time pressures that characterize the closing days of a session.