As Congress prepares to reconvene Monday, its Republican majority is pushing with mounting urgency for at least modest accomplishments to showcase in the November elections and to deflect Democratic charges that the GOP is failing to address national problems.
Republicans appear ready to act on some especially popular issues raised by Democrats, such as prescription drug coverage for Medicare patients, while adopting a more pragmatic approach in pursuing some of their own signature causes, especially tax cuts.
"I'm not interested in a year where you just mark time," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who indicated some willingness to compromise in several areas, including prescription drugs and protections for patients in managed care plans.
The coming congressional session will be marked both by its brevity--probably no more than two months devoted to nonbudget issues--and large political significance. Every House seat and a third of the Senate will be up for grabs in the fall elections, and lawmakers will be under pressure on a variety of politically sensitive votes, including normal trade status for China, gun control and what opponents call "partial birth" abortion.
Action on most major issues was delayed or blocked last year, and Democrats are poised to run against a "do-nothing" Congress in hopes of winning control of the House and shrinking the GOP's majority in the Senate.
In that context, some Republicans said, the party needs to show more results this year. On issues such as raising the minimum wage, Republicans said they will seek to shield themselves from Democratic assaults by doing something--although not so much that it offends their conservative base.
Meanwhile, they are hoping for more success with a new strategy on taxes, pushing a series of targeted tax cuts that could be harder for Democrats to oppose than the 10-year, $792 billion tax cut that President Clinton vetoed last year. The biggest and toughest issues, such as overhaul of Social Security and Medicare, probably will be put off again, at least until after the elections, lawmakers said.
Republicans must "take some Democratic campaign issues off the table" by passing bills dealing with health and other issues, even if Clinton vetoes them, and at the same time promote their own priorities, said GOP pollster Glen Bolger.
"We need to pass some things that boost our agenda, like tax cuts," he added. "We don't have to score a touchdown, but we need to control the clock."
"It's a political survivalist strategy" with "a minimalist agenda," said the Heritage Foundation's Marshall Wittmann. "It's minimalism writ large: small proposals, big hoopla," said a senior GOP aide on Capitol Hill.
Getting anything done in a presidential year, especially one in which one or both houses of Congress are also at stake, is always tricky. But it is not impossible, as Clinton and the Republicans demonstrated in 1996 when both needed accomplishments and got them, including an overhaul of the welfare system.
This year's outcome is likely to depend heavily on the willingness of Clinton and the Democrats to agree to compromises that--some Democrats fear--could help Republicans win the White House, retain control of the House and minimize Democratic gains in the Senate. Democrats are especially leery of what Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.) called "watered-down . . . Band-aid legislation" that is aimed more at making a political point than solving problems.
"I remain ready to agree with them if they come to the middle and are sincere about doing these things," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). "We're not going to help pass things that are ineffective and don't really solve the problem, and I would hope the president would veto them. I think he will."
Some Democrats fear, however, that Clinton's quest for a legacy at the end of his administration could lead him to cut deals that do not help the Democrats, as he has done on occasion in the past.
The problem for Republicans is numbers: They control the House by only five seats, meaning they must maintain extraordinary unity or rely on Democrats for some votes, and they are five votes shy of the 60 needed to bring delaying tactics to a close in the Senate.
Nor are Republicans in complete agreement on the need to compromise. For instance, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said both Clinton and GOP leaders risk "a plague on both our houses" if they fail to work together. But Rep. W. J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) said Republicans should focus on what they would do if they controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. "I see us teeing up a lot of issues we can't achieve with Clinton in the White House," he added.
The risk for Democrats is that they will appear obstructionist in an era when voters seem to want more bipartisan cooperation. Democrats also could find themselves divided from the White House--and among themselves--over issues such as permanent normalization of trade with China.
"I think we can get quite a few things the American people want," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "We'd sure like to have Democratic support," he said. "If it's there, it's there. If not, we'll do it the hard way."
Just as Democrats intend to exploit any Republican weaknesses they can find, Republicans intend to use issues such as trade to divide and embarrass the Democrats, whose trade union supporters oppose many of the trade expansion initiatives favored by the White House. "We're going to put as many wedge votes on as possible to draw lines," said a senior House Republican. "If you're a Democrat and you have to vote on trade, you're going to tick someone off no matter how you vote."
"The key thing for Republicans is not to get mouse-trapped," said the Brookings Institution's Stephen Hess. "Democrats have an agenda with some wind in its sails, whether it's campaign finance, health care, education or so forth. These could play very elegantly into their campaigns. . . . Democratic leadership could become very unpleasant if it wishes to try to force these issues."
Some Major Issues Facing Congress
Republicans are pushing for several small bills instead of the large package vetoed last year by President Clinton. They will include marriage penalty relief, tax breaks for school expenses and, with Clinton's blessing, incentives to spur business growth in low-income communities.
Clinton's proposal to expand Medicare coverage to include prescription medicine got a boost when the pharmaceutical industry signaled willingness to negotiate on the issue and Republican leaders said they would offer a plan of their own.
The Senate approved a bill to raise the hourly wage floor by $1 to $6.15 over three years, with tax cuts to help employers shoulder the cost, and the House plans to vote on a bill of its own before Easter. Clinton and the Democrats are pushing for the $1 increase in two years, with fewer tax cuts.
The Senate may consider a stripped-down campaign finance measure, restricting but not banning "soft money" donations to political parties and raising individual contribution limits. The House last year approved a broader measure but it died in a Senate Republican filibuster.
Crime and gun control
Both houses have approved proposals to curb juvenile crime but cannot agree on gun control provisions, including one to require criminal background checks for sales at gun shows. The House could not agree on gun provisions, and a House-Senate compromise remains doubtful.
The House and Senate approved different versions of legislation to protect patients in health maintenance organizations and other managed care systems; a conference committee will try to resolve differences, including the thorny issue of allowing lawsuits against HMOs.
Trade and foreign policy
Congress will vote on a permanent extension of normal trade relations with China, paving the way for implementation of the 1999 U.S.-China trade pact. Congress could vote separately on whether the United States should withdraw from the World Trade Organization.