Capitol Hill battles tested leadership. Next year will be even tougher with elections and fiscal realities
Washington — The new leader of the United States Senate found his debut year to be rough going. And some of the other stalwarts on Capitol Hill planned retirements during the long congressional session that finally ended last week. Robert Dole, the energetic new majority leader, took command of the Senate with high hopes and broad promises to attack the federal deficit.
Nearly a year later, with red ink still estimated at more than $200 billion a year, the Kansas Republican was philosophical.
``We'd like to have done more,'' he said.
The failure was not for lack of effort on the senator's part.
His war on the deficit reached its high point in the wee hours of May 9, when he put together the thinnest of majorities for a budget that would have made dramatic spending cuts. He convinced his party to take a political risk and vote to freeze social security benefits.
He even talked a convalescing Sen. Pete Wilson (R) of California into leaving his hospital bed to cast the deciding vote from a stretcher.
Within days, the valiant antideficit crusade took on a Don Quixote look. President Reagan backed away from the Senate GOP and announced he would not touch social security.
Afterwards, Dole and his Senate Republicans had to settle for more-modest deficit cutting. Congress eventually passed a sweeping balanced-budget plan that promises future cuts instead of current reductions.
The budget experience proved a watershed in Dole's relations with the White House. He had been chosen leader of the Senate because of his independence, but the line between White House and GOP lawmakers became much sharper after the President pulled the rug out from under Dole's budget plan.
With 22 GOP Senate seats, including his own, up for grabs in 1986, Senator Dole focused on protecting his ranks, especially in the troubled farm belt. While the Reagan administration called for weaning farmers off federal programs, Dole worked to neutralize the growing ill will in the rural countryside.
He arrayed his full range of lawmaking skills in producing a farm bill that would continue basic farm supports.
``The whole farm conference waited for Bob Dole,'' remarked Rep. Tony Coelho (D) of California when describing Dole's role in the House-Senate committee that drew up the final version of the farm bill. Representative Coelho observes that the Senate leader was central to all the farm compromises.
For the most part, the Senate under Dole's leadership has not lived up to expectations for great activism.
Nor does Dole make bold claims. He recently asked staff members to tote up the Senate's 1985 accomplishments on a 3-by-5 card, quipping that he didn't expect the card to be filled.
With only a bare majority of 53 Republicans to 47 Democrats, the Kansan has had to work hard for his victories, and opponents often blocked legislation by filibuster and delays.
A tough partisan fighter, he has sometimes ruffled Democratic feathers. But his intense legislative schedule has brought bipartisan grumbling about long Senate hours and spawned a Senate committee on ``quality of life,'' aimed at making schedules more predictable.
If the work was difficult this year for the new majority leader, next year's promises to be even harder with the 1986 elections and his GOP majority on the line.
On the House side, meanwhile, the white-maned Irish politician from Massachusetts began backing out of the picture --but not very quietly. House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. continued calling the shots and firing the rhetoric for Democrats.
Republicans and even some Democrats predict a power vacuum in the Speaker's chair, since Representative O'Neill will retire at the end of 1986. These predicitions may be premature.
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado pronounced her party to be leaderless and immobilized in the face of the Senate's balanced-budget proposal. That was during a press breakfast Oct. 31. Two days later the Democratic leadership pulled together their own balanced-budget plan. In a rare display of unity, Democrats voted for it almost unanimously.
However, O'Neill began delegating more of the leadership duties to deputies, while smoothing the way for majority leader Jim Wright (D) of Texas to succeed him.
But other House Democrats began moving to the fore. They included Mr. Wright's possible rival, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois. The powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee skillfully guided the huge tax-overhaul bill through his committee and the House.
House Democratic whip Thomas S. Foley of Washington state, a moderate with the skills of a diplomat, grew more visible. He led his party in the balanced-budget bill negotiations.
Among other lawmakers, a brash freshman put an indelible stamp on the session. Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, a single-minded former economist, came up with the term ``sequestration'' and shook Washington. The balanced-budget act that he helped write and single-mindedly pushed would force deficit cutting, or else require the president to ``sequester,'' or impound, federal funds.
Sen. Jake Garn (R) of Utah went the highest, literally, of any senator during the term -- by becoming a space-shuttle astronaut.
Some of the towering figures of the Senate announced they would be retiring in 1986. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona, the gruff dean of conservatives and former presidential candidate, said he would call it quits.
Sen. Russell Long (D) of Louisiana, who for many years was master of tax-writing in the upper chamber, will retire.
So will the President's closest senatorial friend, Sen. Paul Laxalt (R) of Nevada, and Maryland moderate Republican Charles McC. Mathias and Democratic Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton.