A congressional cease-fire with President Reagan over Central America, coupled with accords on issues ranging from banking to covert operations, has raised a flicker of hope that Congress can avoid bitter confrontation with the president when it returns from a month-long recess Sept. 9.
But the lawmakers' failure to agree among themselves on deficit reduction before they headed home late Friday added to already strong chances of legislative gridlock that could dash Democrats' hopes of building a high-profile record of accomplishment to parade before voters next year.
Even with White House cooperation, Congress faces a heavy, difficult load of work, most of which it is supposed to finish in 12 working days before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
Without White House cooperation, some believe, Congress faces protracted battles that are likely to extend the session well beyond its early October adjournment target. The spectacle of prolonged haggling could reflect poorly on the Democratic-led legislature with voters.
Intense partisanship over the past seven months, including confrontations with the White House, have contributed to a pileup of unfinished business, especially in the Senate, where Republican delaying tactics have stymied Democratic initiatives.
In its opening months, the 100th Congress overrode Reagan's vetoes of clean-water and highway legislation; that helped trigger the confrontational atmosphere.
The House has continued to pass legislation on a range of issues, including two-thirds of the fiscal 1988 appropriations bills that are supposed to be enacted by Oct. 1. But the Senate, which Democrats control by a smaller majority, slowed to a crawl when Republicans began using filibusters and other delaying tactics to stall Democratic legislation ranging from campaign finance revision to arms-control provisions in the defense authorization bill for next year.
The Senate joined the House in approving a program for the homeless and reauthorization of housing programs, both at levels that exceed Reagan requests. Like the House, it also approved trade legislation aimed at enhancing the competitive position of the United States, although major differences must be resolved between the two chambers and eventually between Congress and the White House.
But most other House initiatives still await Senate action. Among them is expansion of Medicare to encompass coverage for catastrophic illnesses and outpatient drugs, which was delayed because of Republican objections. The defense bill is bogged down by an intractable dispute over proposed Democratic constraints on development of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). No appropriations bills have cleared even the first subcommittee in the Senate.
This means that when Congress returns, appropriations for the entire government will have to be combined into one super-sized spending bill. Arms control initiatives and other contentious issues that did not reach a vote in separate legislation probably will be added to the appropriations bill. Another "big-bang" measure will include taxes and spending cuts to reduce deficits, considered separately or together with budget-law changes that foundered Friday as the recess approached. In addition, Congress will have to contend with matters ranging from trade restrictions, catastrophic-illness insurance and welfare-law revision to the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork.
Facing stalemate on many of these issues unless differences with the White House can be resolved, Democratic leaders have gone out of their way recently to encourage accommodations with Reagan and have welcomed any conciliatory gestures, even when they seemed illusory.
The White House, seeking to regain some of the initiative it lost in the Iran-contra ordeal, appeared to be leaning toward a selective strategy of confrontation when that appeared likely to yield success, and cooperation when the circumstances were less auspicious.
The result was a series of accommodations surfacing first in a surprise compromise that cleared the way for enactment of a major banking bill, the first in five years, which included a bailout of the faltering Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. (FSLIC).
Then came the centerpiece: a Central American peace initiative undertaken by the White House with the cooperation of House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), which, if successful, could head off a showdown over continued aid to the Nicaraguan contras.
Finally, the White House reached partial agreement with congressional leaders on procedures for notifying Congress of covert national security operations such as those that led to the sale of arms to Iran and diversion of profits to aid the contras.
These moves came as Congress criticized the president's proposal to reflag and escort Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf, but passed no legislation to block the plan. Lawmakers seemed to prefer to distance themselves from the consequences.
"I'm encouraged," said Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) last week, reflecting on what he saw as a possible improvement in relations between Congress and the White House. "This is what we've been asking for all along -- working together in a bipartisan way," Byrd said, speaking of the Central American peace plan. "Why not try it in other areas?" he asked.
Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, agreed with Byrd, attributing the political accommodations to the influence of White House chief of staff Howard H. Baker Jr., a former Senate majority leader, and other new officeholders such as national security adviser Frank C. Carlucci and CIA Director William H. Webster.
"The president is beginning to think about how his policies will continue after his term . . . and policies cannot continue without the cooperation of Congress," Boren said.
Rep. Matthew F. McHugh (D-N.Y.), former chairman of the Democratic Study Group in the House, saw advantages to more cooperation for both the White House and Democratic-controlled Congress. Just as the Democrats need to show they can govern, Reagan needs to finish his term as an effective president, recovered from wounds of the Iran-contra affair, McHugh said. "We're all in this together."
McHugh also said that a produc-"I still think we're headed for a train wreck."
-- Rep. Dick Cheney
tive record for the 100th Congress may be more important to the Democrats than it is to the White House because voters will see it more as a Democratic record than a presidential score card. "It's to our interest to get him engaged," McHugh said.
The Republican view was less sanguine about prospects for lasting accommodation.
"I don't see any big shift," said Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), who has been point man for the administration in blocking Democratic moves that, in its view, seek to diminish Reagan's legacy.
"I still think we're headed for a train wreck," said Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), member of the House Republican, using the metaphor many lawmakers employ to describe what happens when Congress' inability to act causes the government to shut down or default.
Moreover, neither Democrats nor Republicans expect accommodation on what may be the most contentious issue: taxes to help meet deficit-reduction targets. Major differences between Reagan and the Democrats are expected over most major spending issues.
And there is little hope for accord on arms constraints, including restoration of SALT II weapons limits, a nuclear test ban treaty and treaty interpretations that could limit SDI testing and development. But the longer the arms control deadlock continues in Congress, the closer Reagan gets to a possible summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, enhancing the president's ability to dissuade Congress from action by contending that any restrictive legislation would undermine his bargaining position with Gorbachev.
History is not on the side of monumental accomplishments in a Congress dominated by one party when a president of the other party is nearing the end of two full terms. Congressional Quarterly wrote of the 86th Congress during the final two years of Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidency in terms that would be familiar to the White House and Congress of today. It was a session of "indifferent accomplishment and spirited partisanship," the longest in years. Neither the Democrats nor Eisenhower got what they wanted.