The 96th Congress -- in a last hurrah for the Democrats after a quarter century in which they controlled both houses -- opened its lame-duck session yesterday by cutting off talk of a tax cut bill this year and scaling back its remaining agenda in hopes of adjourning by Dec. 5.
But even the abbreviated Democratic wish list of legislation drew fire from Republicans, who want a tax cut but are balking at almost anything else until they can take control of the White House and Senate in January.
The partisan standoff raised doubts about enactment of appropriations bills and a final budget for fiscal 1981, as well as approval of pending legislation on subjects ranging from fair housing to child health and cleanup of toxic wastes.
However, the Alaska lands bill, which would forbid or restrict development on some 100 million acres in that state and has been characterized by President Carter as the environmental legislation of the decade, won easy final approval as House Interior Committee Chairman Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) agreed to swallow without amendment a compromise measure adopted by the Senate last fall. [Details on Page A59]
If the Republicans succeed in side-tracking the budget and most appropriations bills, President-elect Ronald Reagan will have an extraordinary -- perhaps unprecedented -- opportunity to set tax policy and spending priorities from the start of his administration. Normally, new presidents spend their first year in office working under fiscal restraints left by their predecessors.
As Congress picked up where it left off before the pre-election recess started Oct. 4, most attention focused on the lame ducks who will not be returning next year, including some of the most powerful committee chairmen and liberal leaders from both houses who were ousted in last week's elections.
In all, there were more than 80 in both houses, the largest assemblage of retiring members for a post-election session since 1948. They included House Majority Whip John Brademas (D-Ind.), House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Al Ullman (D-Ore.), Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.), Senate-Agriculture Committee Chairman Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.), Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Frank Church (D-Idaho) and such other prominent Senate liberals as George McGovern (D-S.D.), Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), John Culver (D-Iowa) and Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.).
"Here we come, the endangered species," quipped Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.) as the Democrats gathered to caucus and exchange commiseration before the session started. "We're getting a grant from the Wildlife Federation to save us all," Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) joked wanly.
But there was also business as usual as the House began consideration of legislation to reauthorize revenue sharing with local governments, which expired Sept. 30, and the Senate took up a Justice Department appropriations bill that had been blocked in September because of a filibuster over school busing.
The death knell for a tax cut during the lame-duck session came during the Senate Democrats' caucus, when they voted overwhelmingly against consideration of a $39 billion tax reduction bill that had been proposed by the Senate Finance Committee and endorsed for action this year by Reagan.
House Democrats, along with Carter, already were opposed to action this year on a tax cut, and House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) said beefore the session started that Carter had told him he would veto a tax cut if it were passed by Congress.
"There won't be any tax cut passed this year," said House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) after a meeting between House and Senate Democratic leaders that resulted in the bobtailed agenda and the Dec. 5 adjournment target.
Responding to their own pre-election jitters, Senate Democrats agreed last summer to push for a tax cut and Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said as recently as last Wednesday that he intended to push for the tax cut bill this year. He told reporters yesterday he changed his mind after consulting with Carter and House leaders and coming to the conclusion that Reagan "ought to have his time at bat" before Congress determines details of the tax reduction.
However, Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), who is in line to become majority leader in the next session, told the Senate he still wanted a tax cut, even though he thought Congress should "do as little as we can do in good conscience" on other matter during the lame-duck session.
"I think it is not one day too soon to provide tax relief for the people of the United States," said Baker.
The Democrats' legislative agenda leads off with passage of the 1981 budget resolution, which Democratic leaders shelved before the election to avoid the embarrassment of having to campaign on the basis of a budget deficit. a
But Baker said he had "grave doubts" that the budget could be passed, reflecting Republican pressure to leave the budget in limbo until the Republicans take over the White House and Senate. This drew a sharp rejoinder from House Democratic Leader Wright, who said failure to enact a budget could kill the congressional budget process and warned that it would be a "suicidal thing for a party to do . . . to let that process die out of sheer pique."
With 10 of the 13 major appropriation bills still hanging fire, the Democrats want to pass as many of them as possible before adjournment.But, again, Republicans in both houses want to defer most of them and extend stopgap funding until sometime after the Reagan inauguration. However, Baker indicated the Republicans may want to pass the defense appropriations bill.
The 1981 fiscal year began Oct. 1, so Congress already is long overdue in passing both the budget and appropriations bills. Republicans contend there is no harm in waiting still longer.
As for other legislation, Byrd said he hoped Congress would complete action on revenue sharing, the fair housing bill, criminal code revision, creation of a "superfund" to finance cleanup of toxic wastes and legislation to curb government-forced paper work. But he did not commit the Democratic majority to act on all the bills and some Democrats they doubted many of the bills would pass. Byrd himself called it a "pretty full platter."
Baker said he supported some of the legislation, such as the toxic wastes superfund, but felt a "better job" could be done next year. However, Baker indicated he would support the bill to extend revenue sharing during the lame-duck session. Mayors are especially anxious over this legislation.