Gridlock Cracks As the Senate Backs NAFTA, Brady Bill

Packwood affair still looms as lawmakers head for recess

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ON Capitol Hill, there's nothing like the prospect of a little `R & R' to spur action.

As legislators labored through the weekend to wrap up business for the year, they came to closure on a variety of issues. Most surprising was the Senate's passage Saturday of the so-called Brady bill, which would impose a nationwide five-day waiting period on the purchase of handguns.

The Brady bill, named for former White House press secretary James Brady, who was critically wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan, had seemed to be stalled in its latest attempt at passage by a Republican filibuster. But in the face of public sentiment, which supports the effort to control availability of guns, enough Republicans dropped their objection to end the filibuster.

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``We finally decided ... let's get the Brady bill behind us,'' Senate minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas told reporters afterwards.

Though critics of the bill argue that it will do little to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, it has taken on symbolic importance since it was first introduced in the mid-1980s.

Senator Dole's remark also appeared to reflect a deeper sentiment among members of Congress - a desire to show that they can move beyond the gridlock that characterized the years of Republican White Houses and Democratic Congresses. Perhaps most important, Democratic control of the White House makes it all the harder for Republicans to completely resist the Democratic agenda.

One example is the Senate's passage last Thursday of a bill reviving the independent-counsel law. The bill - which allows investigation of public officials by independent counsels - resurrects the law that expired last December because of Republican objection to counsel Lawrence Walsh's investigation of the Iran-contra affair.

But Republicans decided that strenuous objection to a law designed to keep public officials honest was not good for public relations. After changes were made imposing cost and time limits on the work of future independent counsels, the bill passed by a vote of 76 to 21.

Congress's flurry of weekend activity also included:

* Senate passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was always the House that posed problems for approval of NAFTA, and after the administration won a stronger victory there than expected on Wednesday, the Senate vote seemed anti-climactic.

The treaty, which is set to be implemented Jan. 1, needs to be signed into law by the heads of state of the three countries - the United States, Mexico, and Canada - that will form a free-trade bloc. The new Canadian prime minister has not yet put the agreement into law.

r Senate approval of a $1.1 billion extension in unemployment benefits that had expired at the end of last month. The bill had been held up by Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, who wanted the Senate to first lock in a reduction in the federal work force by 252,000 people, as proposed in the administration's National Performance Review. The Senate voted down Senator Gramm's proposal, which Democrats called grandstanding. The House is expected to approve the extension of unemployment benefits next week.

* Floor discussion in the House, for the first time, of statehood for the District of Columbia. Backers of statehood knew their bill would be voted down yesterday, but they saw the first-time floor debate as key to their effort to build nationwide support for statehood. Residents of D.C. do not have voting representation in Congress, and district leaders do not have full control of city affairs because of the district's status as a constitutionally mandated federal enclave.

* The conclusion by the Senate ethics committee that it had ``no credible evidence'' that Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah had violated any laws or broken any Senate rules in his dealings related to the fraud-ridden Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Senator Hatch had initiated the inquiry himself after reports were published about contacts between his office and representatives of the bank.

IN another ethics matter, speculation heightened over the weekend about the future of Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon, who is currently under investigation for sexual-harassment charges and possible wrongdoing related to lobbying by Mitsubishi Electric Company. On Friday, Senator Packwood's lawyer said the senator was considering resignation, though Packwood himself has maintained that he won't quit.

Last week, the Justice Department subpoenaed Packwood's diaries as part of its investigation into whether he improperly helped Mitsubishi in Congress in exchange for a job for his wife. If he had resigned before the Justice Department subpoena, he could have destroyed his diaries with impunity. Resignation would also end the Senate ethics committee inquiry on sexual harassment.

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