Congress, which returns today, will barely have cleared its collective throat before members start traipsing off for "retreats"--some of them just across the street at the Library of Congress, others in more remote and recreational surroundings outside the Beltway.

The idea is to get away from telephones, staffers, constituents and reporters to exchange ideas and plot strategy for the year. The need is all the more acute this year because of campaign priorities, the brevity of an election-year schedule and the fact that few members have been in touch with one another since Congress adjourned before Thanksgiving.

The first to leave campus will be Senate Republicans, but they won't go far--just a short walk to the Library of Congress Thursday to spend a day sorting out their agenda before President Clinton gives his State of the Union address that night. Lest they be considered wonky Beltway bums, they are also booking into the Nemacolin resort in Farmington, Pa., for more agenda talk on the weekend of Feb. 25, just a week after Congress returns from the Presidents' Day recess.

Everyone else, it seems, will be on the move the first week in February, just before the recess.

House Republicans will nestle in at Nemacolin Feb. 3-5. The day the Republicans return, House Democrats take off for the Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Va., where they will remain through Feb. 7. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats will take their turn at the Library of Congress Feb. 4, and are planning a retreat to Nemacolin in May.

House Democrats have snagged the millennium's newest power couple for their Hot Springs retreat: AOL's Steve Case and Time-Warner's Gerald Levin will address lawmakers at dinner on their first night on "the emergence of the new economy." President Clinton will speak to the crowd during lunch the last day.

Not to be outdone, House Republicans have invited a group of inspirational speakers, including Pennsylvania State University football coach Joe Paterno.

GREEN SCISSORS: Environmentalist and budget-cutting groups have issued their 1999 "Green Scissors" report, tallying how Congress fared on votes that, according to the groups, harm the environment and cost taxpayers. The House approved $831 million in anti-green subsidies, the Senate nearly $733 million, the groups' report said.

The report covered votes on funding for fossil fuel research and development, subsidies for hard-rock mining, timber sales and low oil royalties from public lands, sugar subsidies and promotion of farm exports.

According to the study's three sponsors--Friends of the Earth, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group--Democrats fared far better than Republicans on several key votes.

Of the 44 senators who supported the maximum amount of "waste," the only Democrats were Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and John Breaux (La.). Of the 30 senators who had perfect waste-free scores, only three were Republicans: William V. Roth Jr. (Del.), Arlen Specter (Pa.) and James M. Jeffords (Vt.).

TAX CREDITS: A GOP group headed by Robert J. Dole's former campaign manager is pushing for a health care tax credit for the uninsured, arguing it will bolster the party's standing with Hispanics.

Scott Reed's Republican Leadership Coalition has sent a brochure to lawmakers touting House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey's "Fair Care" plan, which would provide the average family with a $3,000 tax credit for health expenses. Reed argues that "winning the 2000 election is simply a matter of winning with some voter segments with whom Democrats have traditionally had strong appeal."

The coalition has already conducted focus groups on the plan in California and Texas, and the Hispanic Business Roundtable released a poll last week saying 89 percent of Hispanics believe Congress should focus on making insurance more available and affordable rather than on expanding patients' ability to sue managed care companies.

"Republicans need to take their head out of the sand," Reed said.

THE WEEK AHEAD: The Senate plans to vote Tuesday on a GOP effort to force action on a bill to overhaul bankruptcy laws, which Democrats have been blocking in order to get votes on several controversial amendments. It could also vote on citizenship for Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy who could be returned to his father in Cuba, GOP aides said. The House has scheduled no votes until the following week.