WHEN CONGRESS reconvenes after the inauguration, the administration will send to the Hill a bill to overturn the Supreme Court decision in the Grove City case. That ruling limited the government's ability to enforce civil rights laws in institutions receiving federal funds by restricting sanctions to the particular program affected -- college athletics, for instance -- instead of applying them to the entire institution. The Grove City case dealt with sex discrimination in a college program, but Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds said that the court's reasoning might be applied to other types of discrimination as well. Civil rights groups agreed and mobilized in support of a bill that clarified the government's broad obligations in connection with all federal aid programs. That measure was passed by the House but died in the Senate last year.

There is good news in the administration's decision to offer a Grove City bill, but the text is not yet available, and it is not clear that it will be broad enough. Civil rights forces insist that legislation must reach all aid recipients, not just educational institutions, and suspect that the president's bill will not go far enough. They will offer a revised version of their own bill as an alternative. The difficulty for both sides lies in finding language that reaches institutions other than schools and colleges while, at the same time, not creating any new civil rights remedies. No one wants to see federal funds going to a hospital that segregates patients by race even if that practice exists only in a single ward. But Congress also wants to avoid unintentionally authorizing burdensome new regulations where none now apply -- requiring ramps for the handicapped, for example, in Mom and Pop grocery stores that accept food stamps. Civil rights groups do not disagree and maintain that the bill they support accomplishes a narrow objective.

Senate Republicans will play a major role in the debate ahead. Sens. Dole, Packwood, Mathias, Weicker, Durenberger and Chafee have, in the past, helped to frame civil rights legislation and devise compromises when they are needed. Their efforts will be important in crafting a bill that accomplishes what both sides say they seek, and avoids the effects neither side wants. That task deserves high priority and determined leadership.