The Republican-controlled 106th Congress faces a pile of unfinished business that will be hard to deal with in a presidential and congressional election year.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) on Friday outlined a daunting agenda for legislators when they return in January: tax relief, protections for patients in health maintenance organizations, increased access to health insurance, trade expansion, and the overhaul of Social Security, Medicare and pension programs.
But many legislators and others are skeptical about Congress's ability to do such heavy lifting, suggesting that only the most popular of initiatives, such as HMO reform, are likely to be approved in the take-no-risks climate of an election year. "It's going to be hard to get big things done in the year 2000," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
Starting with the Senate's acquittal of President Clinton on impeachment charges and ending with a spending compromise between Congress and the White House, the 106th's first session, which essentially concluded Friday, was notable more for what it did not do than for what it did.
"If this Congress is known for anything, it will be that it didn't do any serious harm," said Thomas E. Mann, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution.
Except for the passage of a sweeping bill overhauling Depression-era financial services laws, lawmakers deferred most of the tough issues for next year, including not only those that Hastert mentioned, but also crime and gun control, a minimum-wage increase, rival approaches to education policy and tighter bankruptcy laws. The overhaul of campaign finance laws was blocked in the Senate; so was a treaty to ban nuclear testing. Clinton vetoed the Republicans' tax cut of nearly $800 billion over 10 years.
But the combination of Clinton's veto of the tax cut and GOP resistance to many Democratic spending initiatives resulted in Congress producing what Rutgers University professor Ross Baker calls an "accomplishment by omission": reducing the more than $5 trillion national debt by $130 billion to $150 billion.
In the process--as Republicans and Democrats maneuvered to trump each other as the premier protectors of Social Security--legislators created a powerful new instrument of fiscal discipline, making it more difficult politically to use surpluses generated by Social Security taxes to finance tax cuts or other spending.
Clinton scored the first political strike by waving the "save Social Security" flag to fend off a GOP tax cut last year. But, after he proposed this year to use some future surpluses for his pet spending programs, Republicans picked up the banner to block him from doing so. Together, they probably dipped into the retirement fund surplus, but they also kept each other from conducting a full-scale raid.
"Any time you can save that much money, you're doing pretty good," said Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.). Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) agreed. By walling off the Social Security surpluses, Congress established a "new credibility threshold . . . a new level of political legitimacy" for the protection of the retirement fund's revenues, Daschle said.
Even the struggle between the two parties to define the debate for next year's campaigns focused as much on failures as successes.
Democrats have pushed hard for their own agenda--including education, health care, gun control, campaign finance reform, environmental protection and a minimum-wage increase--scoring more political points than legislative victories. They charge that the Republicans' failure to act on these issues has made the 106th a "do-nothing Congress" or a "do-the-wrong-thing Congress," as House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) describes it.
Democrats are already running television ads attacking the GOP on issues such as the failure to act on Clinton's proposal for Medicare coverage of prescription drug costs. One recently unveiled ad shows a "legislative graveyard" filled with the tombstones of failed bills.
Republicans counter that Democrats tried to obstruct most of their major initiatives, including the tax cut and scaled-back initiatives on guns and the minimum wage. "They've been in a sense pretty obstructionist on everything we've tried to do," Hastert said. "I think they made a decision to run against a 'do-nothing' Congress, at the great risk of becoming 'do-nothing' Democrats."
Next year, like this year, many of the dominant issues are likely to be those traditionally associated with Democrats: Social Security, education and health care. The leading exception is the issue of tax cuts, which Republicans are likely to push again even though it does not appear to have registered strongly so far with voters outside of their base constituency.
"Once the Republicans dropped the tax cut issue [after Clinton's veto], they were fighting on Democratic turf," said Marshall Wittmann, chief Congress-watcher at the Heritage Foundation. "They have gone from starry-eyed revolutionaries to steely-eyed pragmatists" and, by focusing on Social Security, they are now dedicated to "saving the cornerstone of the welfare state."
But, just as Clinton skillfully embraced such GOP issues as balancing the budget and controlling crime, Republicans proved themselves adept this year at trying to co-opt the opposition's issues or at least to blunt their edge.
"If you look to polls, I don't think they've fundamentally changed the perception, but it's a slow process, and they did the right thing in attempting to explain that, on education for instance, they are not against it but just for a different approach," said political analyst Stu Rothenberg.
Republicans have consciously "softened their edges," said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.). "Now, people are more comfortable with us."
The Republicans' thin five-vote majority in the House helps explain both the inability of the GOP majority to do more and the early frenzy over next year's campaigns. Control of the House is at stake, emboldening Democrats and making it more difficult for GOP leaders to unify their ranks on tough issues. "Everyone's looking for a foothold" for next year's elections, said Brookings' Mann.
Senate Republicans are likely to retain control of their chamber and have been more successful in holding together on key votes, but their 55-45 majority is not big enough to shut down Democratic filibusters. As a result, both parties lack the votes to pass their initiatives.
HMOs, guns and campaign finance were examples of why it was so difficult to get anything done.
Senate Republicans stuck together enough to defeat a Democratic managed-care bill and approve a milder version of their own. But House Republicans split, leading to the approval of a bill more closely resembling the defeated Senate Democratic proposal.
On guns, Senate Democrats won over enough Republicans to gain approval of a requirement for criminal background checks on sales at gun shows and other firearms controls, only to see their initiatives succumb to a lethal ideological cross-fire in the House.
The reverse was true of proposals to ban unlimited "soft money" contributions to political parties and to control "attack ads" by outside groups. The House approved a bill to do so by a big bipartisan margin; it was killed by a GOP filibuster in the Senate.
Fueled by the impeachment struggle, high election stakes and other factors, partisanship has been on the rise in Congress for years and may have hit a new high this year, making inter-party cooperation more difficult than ever. But Hastert is less of a divisive figure than his predecessor, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). And an excess of partisanship in the Senate appeared to scare centrists of both parties, prompting new efforts to avoid some of this year's disasters, such as the handling of the test ban treaty.
It may have been no accident that Congress's long partisan ordeal ended on a strikingly bipartisan note, with huge majorities in both parties voting late Friday for the final budget deal between Congress and the White House.
Here are some of the major initiatives that the 106th Congress approved, rejected or put off until next year:
Banking: Congress approved and President Clinton signed a bill to overhaul the nation's financial services industry for the first time since the Depression, removing barriers separating banks, securities firms and insurance companies.
Education: Congress and Clinton agreed on a bill to give states more flexibility in spending federal school aid. A broader fight over rival education initiatives is likely next year.
Y2K liability: Congress approved and Clinton signed legislation limiting the liability of firms whose computers fail on Jan. 1, 2000.
Nuclear test ban: The Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty despite pleas from a majority of senators to delay the vote.
Tax cut: Republican majorities in both houses pushed through a tax cut of nearly $800 billion over 10 years, but Clinton vetoed it and GOP leaders did not have the votes to override.
Social Security and Medicare: Major reform efforts to strengthen the financing of big benefit programs for the elderly fizzled; a proposed "lockbox" to protect Social Security revenues passed the House but ran into a filibuster by Senate Democrats, who wanted Medicare funds protected, too.
Campaign finance: The House approved a bipartisan bill to ban unlimited "soft money" donations to political parties and regulate attack ads by outside groups; it died in a Senate GOP filibuster.
Managed care: The Senate and House approved different versions of legislation to protect patients' rights in health maintenance organizations and other managed -- care plans; a conference will try to resolve differences next year.
Crime and gun control: The Senate approved a proposal to require criminal background checks for all sales at gun shows as part of its bill on juvenile crime; the House approved anti-crime proposals without gun controls. Efforts to resolve differences will continue next year.
Minimum wage: The Senate approved a bill to raise the hourly minimum wage by $1 to $6.15 over three years and cut taxes to help businesses pay the cost; the House put off the issue until next year.
CAPTION: Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), left, and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) explain to reporters the vote on a dairy pricing measure.
CAPTION: House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) reacts to a question at a news conference. He and fellow Republicans faulted the Democrats' actions.
CAPTION: Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, talks to members of the news media.