Congress enters final stretch. Democrats push agenda to put Reagan, Bush on the defensive

It's the fourth quarter, and what's the Gipper got in mind now? That is the question as Congress settles back to work today for a final month of pre-election legislating.

During the 100th Congress, the majority Democrats have forged ahead with an ambitious legislative agenda, one designed to make Ronald Reagan seem ineffectual and the Democrats appear to be the party best qualified to run the country.

With Congress slated to adjourn for the year on Oct. 7, Democrats have little more than four weeks to ram the remaining bits of their agenda through the system. They are also eager to put the Reagan administration - and by extension the presidential candidacy of Vice-President George Bush - on the defensive wherever possible.

At the same time, the Democrats have to be wary of being too provocative - sending legislation to President Reagan's desk that is not only sure to win a presidential veto, but the enmity of the centrist independents around the country on whose support both the Bush and Dukakis campaigns are counting.

In the next few weeks, for example, both houses are expected to pass a sharply protectionist bill designed to shelter the United States textile and shoe industries from foreign competition by slapping stiff quotas on textile, garment, and shoe imports.

Congress passed similar legislation in previous years, but not by the margins needed to override Reagan's inevitable veto. This year, by all accounts, history promises to repeat itself.

While some Democrats believe the textile bill provides them with an excellent opportunity to buttress support among the nation's blue collar workers, others fret that it will only reinforce their reputation as the party of protectionism.

``The trade deficit isn't on peoples' minds right now,'' observes one staff aide to a Democratic senator opposed to the textile bill. ``It's just the wrong signal to be sending.''

Similarly, the ongoing saga over US aid to the Nicaraguan contra rebels provides opportunities and pitfalls for both sides.

In the next few weeks, lawmakers are going to have to decide what to do about a Senate Democrat-sponsored plan calling for $27 million in new ``humanitarian'' aid to the contras, and a possible fall release of $16.5 million worth of previously purchased military supplies.

The problem is that the Democratic plan was adopted by the Senate shortly before the August recess over vociferous objections of Republicans, who refused to go along with a plan that the White House would not endorse. The Republicans' action ensured that the Democrats' proposal - and, indeed, the whole question of contra aid - would remain the subject of fiercely partisan debate.

That is a dangerous state of affairs for Democrats, against whom Republicans hope to use the contra aid issue in the fall. The Democrats' present refusal to release military aid to the contras may be a potent issue for Republicans in the Southwest, where some voters are concerned that a communist takeover in Nicaragua would result in a new influx of immigrants.

But that is also a hazardous strategy for Republicans to pursue. Contra aid remains unpopular in many parts of the country. Moreover, pro-contra members of both parties say that Reagan, in refusing to support the Democrats' initiative, jeopardized his best chance of getting renewed military backing for the rebels.

The wild card in this is the ever-fluid state of affairs between the contras and Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas. Peace talks between the two sides broke up amid mutual recriminations this summer, thus triggering the new push for contra aid. Though no new talks have been scheduled, congressional aides with close ties to contra and Sandinista officials believe that the two sides may sit down to talk again just as House and Senate conferees sit down to fashion a compromise contra aid package.

The Democrats' contra aid provision has been attached to a Pentagon spending bill already entangled in a partisan, election-year battle over defense priorities. Last month, Reagan vetoed next year's defense authorization bill, asserting that it would undermine his bargaining position in arms control negotiations with Moscow and destroy the strategic defense initiative.

Now, the question is what comes next. Democratic leaders plan to attach much of the authorization bill that Reagan vetoed to the spending bill now under consideration. What is unclear is whether the provisions that Reagan found offensive will be included in the new bill and whether Reagan will veto the new defense bill as a result.

Meanwhile, Democrats have a political counterattack of their own in the works. While the conference on the new defense bill gets under way next week, House Democrats will take a not-so-subtle jab at the Pentagon procurement scandal that rocked Washington this summer, passing a bill that would overhaul the Pentagon purchasing system.

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