Up Next: a Big Year for Congress As Health, Welfare, Crime Crowd Agenda

CONGRESS assembles tomorrow for what could become ``the year of reform.''

Health-care reform, President Clinton's No. 1 domestic goal, will top the congressional agenda for 1994. But Congress will also grapple with at least a dozen other areas in which lawmakers are demanding major change, including crime and welfare.

Analysts say that with so many large issues pending, this could be one of the most explosive sessions in years. Midterm elections are less than 10 months away, and members in both major parties will be striving to impress a range of constituents.

On the eve of the new session, Republicans quickly showed they were in a feisty mood. At a three-day strategy meeting over the weekend, GOP leaders, including House whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, criticized Mr. Clinton as soft on crime and demanded that violent criminals be rounded up and confined in military stockades.

The welfare issue could also produce fireworks. Lawmakers such as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York insist a nationwide welfare overhaul is even more vital to America's future than repairing the costly health-care system.

The White House worries that pushing for sweeping change in health and welfare simultaneously could overload Congress and that a tough welfare package could alienate liberal Democrats. Yet reform of welfare was a vital element in Clinton's campaign promise to be a new kind of Democrat.

Some Republicans are calling for a clampdown on welfare that would require every recipient to work.

While dealing with Clinton's high-priority initiatives, Congress will also be looking inward, where critics say some of the most important changes are necessary.

One of the first orders of business next month will be Senate proposals that call for eliminating all joint House-Senate committees, putting limits on committee memberships, imposing a two-year budget, and appointing a panel of outside citizens to monitor congressional ethics.

These changes have won bipartisan support in the Senate, and among House Republicans. But some senior House Democrats are balking and could undermine the entire congressional reform process.

Meanwhile, Congress must also try to reconcile two disparate versions of campaign-finance reform - one passed last year by the House (HR 3), the other by the Senate (S 3).

The Senate would wipe out contributions from political-action committees (PACs) to candidates for Congress and would slap a tax on any congressional campaign that refuses to abide by new spending limits.

The House wants none of that. It leaves PACs free to give up to $5,000 to any campaign. It would also reward candidates who abide by spending limits with government-paid vouchers to buy TV commercials and pay other campaign expenses.

Finding a compromise may be impossible, and some campaign-finance experts are openly discouraged.

Beyond these several priorities for 1994, Congress must deal with a plateful of other initiatives. These include a number of bills and proposals which fall under the label of reform, including the balanced-budget amendment, limits on lobbyists' gifts, creation of a new Cabinet post for the Environmental Protection Agency, overhaul of the nation's 122-year-old mining law, a $420 million package to encourage nationwide school reform, and renewal of authority for an independent prosecutor to examine corruption in government.

On top of all that, there are proposals for banking reform, deregulation of telecommunications (the initiative headed by Vice President Al Gore Jr.), protection for 7 million acres of California desert, and a controversial crime bill.

Sensing that crime will be a big 1994 election issue, the GOP and the Democrats will put strong emphasis on a crime package. But no consensus has emerged.

Among the most controversial aspects of the crime issue is a Senate call for a ban on assault weapons and life imprisonment for repeat felons. The president further complicated the gun issue when his administration proposed sharply higher license fees on the nation's gun dealers.

Adding to a sense of urgency among Democrats on Capitol Hill are the coming elections, when Republicans are expected to make significant gains in the House, and perhaps in the Senate.

If the GOP picks up as many as 20 seats in the House, which would bring their total close to 200 out of 435, a Republican-Democratic coalition of conservatives could emerge, and could blunt the president's initiatives after this year.

Adding to Democratic nervousness is the pending takeover in 1995 by Mr. Gingrich of the Republican leadership post in the House. Gingrich is expected to be more aggressive than the current leader, Rep. Bob Michel of Illinois. He could put a number of roadblocks in the president's path.

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