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Pulling the right levers in Congress: bipartisan triple play

By Julia MaloneStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 14, 1983


Only a few months ago Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill were wrestling bitterly over social security. The federal budget process seemed ready for the scrap heap. And as record numbers of Americans lost their jobs, Washington bickered over a response and did nothing.

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Now, with relatively little fuss, the nation's lawmakers are moving on all of those fronts. In its first three months, the fleet-footed 98th Congress may complete a big chunk of its work for the year:

* A rescue for the social security system, the biggest task of all for the new Congress, loped through the House last week and is expected to win passage through the Senate before the Easter recess begins March 25.

* A jobs and relief bill will probably arrive this week on the President's desk, despite a last-minute snafu in the Senate. Freshman Sen. Robert Kasten (R) of Wisconsin is leading a one-man crusade to attach an amendment repealing tax withholding for interest and dividends. Such an amendment would guarantee a presidential veto.

The jobs bill may be pushed along by a deadline on Tuesday, the day more than half the states run out of funds for unemployment benefits that would be provided by the legislation.

If it does become law, the jobs bill will include too much spending for some conservatives and not enough for Democrats from hard-hit areas. But the package is a testament to the new Congress's ability to find the middle ground.

* The first budget resolution, which last year tied Congress up in knots, is expected to be completed on the House and Senate floors before Easter, one month ahead of the deadline. Although the '84 budget offers the opportunity for party friction, both sides are optimistic that they can come up with a workable plan.

The oil that is keeping the legislative machinery running so smoothly is cooperation between the two parties.

''We have been able to accomplish several things in bipartisan agreement,'' explains an aide to senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. Despite their considerable differences, the Republican senator from Tennessee and Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. of Massachusetts have established a working relationship that seems to benefit each.

''The peace (between the parties) is based on a coincidence of interests,'' says Christopher Matthews, an aide to Speaker O'Neill. Both parties needed to repair the financial problems of social security, and both wanted a jobs bill.

Some of the most liberal Democrats are complaining that the party is compromising too much, Mr. Matthews says. He responds, ''The speaker's a fighter , but when you can accomplish your agenda without a fight, why fight?''

Democrats will attempt to sharpen party lines this week as the House Budget Committee begins writing its version of the federal budget. The President is pushing for a 10 percent growth rate for defense, after discounting for inflation. In a questionnaire sent out by House Budget chairman James R. Jones (D) of Oklahoma, more than 80 percent of the Democratic representatives favored 3 to 5 percent growth.