Few were as surprised as Rep. Lynn Martin when her six-year fight to extend civil rights protection to House employees finally paid off.

"Six years we'd been fighting for this! Sometimes, you'd feel like you were banging your head against the wall," Martin said. "So I really didn't expect it to happen the way it did."To the Illinois Republican's surprise, members agreed overwhelmingly this month to end what she calls "the ultimate irony," their self-enacted exemption from the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"To impose a law, as we did, and then totally exempt oneself is a kind of hypocrisy that should not have continued this long," Martin said. "The House recognized this, finally. It's about time."

The chamber approved a compromise offered by Rep. Leon Panetta, D-Calif., banning discrimination on the basis of race, age, sex, religion, handicap or national origin in the hiring and employment of House committee and staff employees.

The measure taking effect Nov. 3 also establishes an Office of Fair Employment Practices to hear discrimination complaints, mediate disputes and penalize House members who violate the law.

Martin blamed the lack of progress - until this year - on resistance from "a handful of old dons who run this place like they had their own little fiefdoms and don't want it to change."

The Illinois lawmaker began her campaign for the civil rights legislation in 1982, when a study she requested found inequities between the salaries paid to male and female employees on Capitol Hill.

Although she complained about the disparity to colleagues, Martin said a follow-up survey in 1984 showed little change. She introduced a bill in January 1985 to require Congress and the federal judiciary to comply with the Civil Rights Act. The bill died in subcommittee.

Last May, after a third study found a continuing gap between pay for men and that received by women and minorities, she submitted the bill again. This time, it bore the names of more than 100 co-sponsors.

The action finally approved Oct. 4 on a 408-12 vote amends House rules to prohibit discrimination by members.

The exemption to the civil rights law still applies to the Senate and the judiciary.