WASHINGTON -- The effort of Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to block the move of up to 1,300 Baltimore public housing families to the suburbs suffered a serious and perhaps fatal setback in Congress yesterday.
Lawmakers writing the final version of a housing appropriation -- bill rejected Mr. Ehrlich's attempt to include in the measure a ban on the use of federal money to move the families. But they said Mr. Ehrlich, a freshman Republican from Baltimore County, may get another crack at the issue later after President Clinton's likely veto of the entire bill.
The plan to move the families is part of a tentative settlement of a housing discrimination lawsuit filed against the city. The settlement is intended to break up the nearly all-black concentrations of poor people in Baltimore's public housing projects.
She expressed "grave concerns" about the effort and said she would offer her own weaker version if Mr. Ehrlich's measure comes up again.
The proposed settlement of the suit, which was filed against the city and the Department of Housing and Urban Development by public housing tenants, would give 1,342 families federal rent-subsidy certificates to move from inner-city housing projects mostly suburban neighborhoods.
Suburban officials have expressed outrage that they were excluded from the settlement talks and complained that the deal could hurt the counties financially and create pockets of poverty in their jurisdictions.
Senator Mikulski echoed those complaints yesterday, agreeing that the suburbs should have been involved in discussions because "the people who are most affected should have the most to say."
But she warned that the Ehrlich proposal could have "severe unintended and negative consequences" if it were adopted, including perhaps "a more draconian remedy" imposed by the courts.
Last night, city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said officials were negotiating with the political leaders of the five surrounding counties to make some adjustments to the agreement that would be brought back to the American Civil Liberties Union.
As representatives of the public housing families, the ACLU filed the suit that charges the city and federal governments with a 60-year history of segregating poor blacks in Baltimore's public housing projects.
Mr. Henson expressed cautious optimism that an agreement would be reached.
U.S. Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros has said he wants any changes to the settlement to be in place by the end of next week, Mr. Henson said.
"We're talking, and everybody's at the table," Mr. Henson said. "We are hopeful that we can come to some accommodations and make some adjustments for regional cooperation."
He declined to elaborate, but he said the adjustments would not represent an overhaul of the agreement.
The ACLU welcomed yesterday's development. "That's obviously something we're pleased about," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, the executive director of the ACLU in Maryland.
He warned that the ACLU wants to provide the rental certificates to all 1,342 families to allow them to move to more affluent neighborhoods. "This is already a compromise," Mr. Comstock-Gay said.
Michael H. Davis, spokesman for Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, said the county still would try to block the proposed legal settlement.
"We're still in discussions" with HUD, he said, adding that the county is getting legal advice from the Washington firm of Williams and Connelly.
If Mr. Ehrlich's proposal comes up again, Ms. Mikulski said she would ask the conference committee to adopt her own substitute, which would prevent use of federal funds for the moves -- until Jan. 30, 1997 -- unless the HUD secretary certified that the counties have been "consulted and given the opportunity for maximum participation in developing the terms of any settlement in this case."
Ms. Mikulski is the senior Democratic senator on a House-Senate conference committee that finished work yesterday on an $80 billion measure to finance the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and several other agencies.
The bill faces a presidential veto unless $2.5 billion is added, Leon E. Panetta, the White House chief of staff, told conferees yesterday. If it is vetoed and the veto isn't overridden, it would come back to the conference committee.
Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the senior House Republican on the committee, promised to offer the Ehrlich language if the bill comes back to the committee.
Both he and Mr. Ehrlich acknowledged that other senators would defer to Ms. Mikulski on the issue, giving her the final say on the committee as to whether the Ehrlich language or a substitute is included in the bill.
Mr. Ehrlich had been counting on Mr. Lewis to offer the language, but the California Republican didn't bring it up during discussion of the HUD appropriation early yesterday afternoon.
He said in an interview later that he expected Ms. Mikulski to raise the issue.
She responded in a separate interview that she had no such plans -- that she would propose her alternative only if the Ehrlich language were introduced.
At the end of the daylong meeting, Mr. Ehrlich, told by a reporter that his effort appeared dead, appeared in the committee room and took Mr. Lewis aside, pleading with him to offer the rider.
The Californian brought it up apologetically, but made it clear that he didn't expect the committee to deal with it after having concluded its HUD deliberations. At that, the meeting ended.