Child-Care Bill Stalled in Congress

DAY-CARE DILEMMA

THIS year's shouting over the day-care issue has died down in the halls of Congress. But the tumult, like the issue itself, lingers on. And no one here is certain whether this year's tumultuous and bitter end to child-care consideration will harm the prospects of passage of a child-care bill next year. Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives, where this year's proposal foundered, have promised to bring up the issue in 1990.

A key question is whether backers of child-care legislation, especially House Democrats, can agree on the content and financing of a bill. Failure to provide anything approaching a united front in the House on those issues doomed for 1989 a proposal that, in concept, a majority had appeared to support.

Some proponents hold that this year's successes have laid the groundwork for final passage of child care in 1990. ``A lot went right this year,'' points out Helen Blank of the Children's Defense Fund, a leading proponent of a federal child-care law. ``We passed a tremendous child-care bill in the Senate with great unity. ... We passed a bill in the House.'' She speaks with cautious optimism of the possibility of gaining compromises that could result in passage next year.

Some observers blame this year's failure to compromise on the fund's director, Marian Wright Edelman, long a powerful advocate for children. She had vigorously objected to last-minute efforts of two leading House Democrats, Rep. Thomas Downey of New York and Rep. George Miller of California, to change the way the child-care package would be financed: from risky $1.7 billion annual appropriations to smaller but safer entitlement programs that do not require yearly congressional action.

``The name of the game in politics is: Compromise when you can maximize your position,'' and 1989 was the year for child care, says Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He says that the Children's Defense Fund ``may have lost the whole kit and caboodle'' by what he views as its failure to compromise and accept the Downey-Miller approach. ``The issue may be off the agenda for the next four or five years,'' Mr. Besharov warns, noting government's need to reduce the budget deficit.

Ironically a bitter memo that Mrs. Edelman wrote barely two weeks ago may have harmed prospects of a bill in 1990. Just after the House had failed to approve child care she charged Representatives Downey and Miller with, among other things, ``continuing guerrilla war to kill child-care legislation this year.''

Several congressional observers say the memo is likely to be harmful because it may encouraging dissension and cost a few votes at a time when day-care advocates need every vote they can muster. ``Without exception everybody I have talked with here - Democrats and Republicans, in the Senate and in the House - thought it was stupid and counterproductive,'' says a key House staff member.

Congressional leaders in the day-care fight publicly say the Edelman memo will not harm their issue's prospects, arguing that the issue is more important than personalities or memorandums.

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