Congress's Last-Minute Successes Give Democrats New Confidence

FOR all the scorn and scandal heaped on the 101st Congress, which ended early Monday morning, its leaders have flown home on a political updraft. In its last sleepless weeks, Congress broke two major deadlocks, each more than a decade old:

The five-year deficit-cutting plan is the most far-reaching agreement in more than a decade of fruitless talk in favor of multi-year budgets.

The Clean Air Act broke a dozen years of stalemate on how to update a law first enacted during the Nixon presidency.

The Democrats who control Capitol Hill finished this Congress with a political bounce that could strengthen their position against the White House when they return to town in January.

The budget battle dropped President Bush to his lowest approval ratings ever (in a Newsweek poll, as low as 48 percent), while Democratic candidates across the country are wafting upward in pre-election polls. Democrats in Washington have a new-found confidence in their ``fairness'' theme, an appeal for more progressive tax rates.

If Democrats pick up a handful more seats in the House and perhaps one more in the Senate - as many pollsters and consultants expect - Congress may find it possible to override presidential vetoes. So far, no Bush veto has been overridden.

After a rocky start nearly two years ago, the 101st Congress ``came to a fairly impressive close,'' notes Brookings Institution guest scholar Mark Peterson.

Congressional troubles included the resignations of House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas and his whip, Tony Coelho of California, under taint of financial scandals. Up through its last week, members of Congress had been embroiled in five separate sexual scandals. Among the other inquiries into alleged ethical lapses, five senators are under scrutiny for intervening in the catastrophic savings-and-loan collapse of Charles Keating Jr.

Yet, in the end, the 101st Congress achieved better than average productivity.

Congress has not been aggressive on foreign affairs, instead largely supporting presidential policy. The direction of its work has been to advance Democratic positions on basic domestic issues.

``We've seen a real push by the Democrats to enact their agenda.'' says Mark Blitz, director of programs for the Hudson Institute.

The fairness theme worked to unify the Democrats in the final weeks of this Congress, says Susan Webb Hammond, professor of political science at American University. ``Certainly the Democrats feel they're on a roll. I expect they will push their agenda even more when they return.''

House Speaker Tom Foley (D) of Washington says the only failure was the lack of reforms in campaign ethics and finance. The House and Senate could not agree on limiting contributions from political action committees. ``Every other legislative undertaking we set out to achieve, we have achieved,'' he said at a Monitor breakfast on Friday.

The highlights:

The five-year, $490-billion deficit cut ``showed no real stomach for cutting discretionary spending ... or reigning in entitlements,'' says Mr. Blitz.

But it ``confronted some hard choices'' that have been avoided for years, says Dr. Hammond.

Either way, the budget battle reflects deep divisions in society beyond the Washington Beltway, says Dr. Peterson.

The Clean Air Act is a sweeping overhaul and expansion of regulations covering smog, acid rain, and toxic gases. The bill is the centerpiece in a range of broader environmental protections passed by Congress.

Child-care subsidies and tax credits were expanded. The cost in tax credits alone is about $12 billion. Grants to states allow them to either subsidize child-care programs or give vouchers to parents.

Immigration quotas were substantially expanded, especially for skilled workers.

Congress also passed laws requiring companies to grant three months parental leave to workers with new children and passed civil rights legislation meant to reverse recent Supreme Court decisions.

Bush vetoed both parental leave and the civil rights bill. But those issues could return in the next Congress with a stronger base of support.

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