Productive Congress Turns Quite Partisan As Fall Elections Approach

THE dust has barely settled on the 103rd Congress, and the next battle is already in full swing - the battle of the messages.

Democrats charge: In the final weeks of this Congress, Republicans played a cynical game of obstructionism, designed to send Congress's public image even lower than it already is and help GOP challengers threaten the Democratic majority in Congress in the Nov. 8 elections.

Republicans counter: Republicans performed a service to the nation by blocking bad legislation.

Democrats add: In fact, this Congress accomplished quite a bit. Look in particular at the first year of the two-year session, when it passed the Family Leave Act, the North American Free Trade Agreement, a major deficit-reduction bill, and the Brady handgun bill. (Democrats launch ad campaign, while Mitchell bids farewell to politics, Page 7.)

Republicans rebut: You can't judge the success of a Congress by counting how many bills passed. Furthermore, look at some of those bills. The deficit-reduction bill included the largest tax increase in history. (Democrats hotly dispute this.) The crime bill was laden with ``pork'' to please members' home districts. (Ditto.)

In short, a Congress that sprinted out of the gate came to a near-crashing halt at the end. In the waning moments, Democrats managed to scrape together 60 votes to halt a filibuster of the California Desert Protection Act, which sets aside 7 million acres of wilderness. The bill's passage handed a victory to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, locked in a tough campaign.

But other legislation that in cooler political times should have passed easily died with the end of the session. A bill to ban virtually all gifts and meals from lobbyists to members of Congress perished after being approved overwhelmingly. Even a bill to require Congress to comply with workplace laws it imposes on the rest of the country - once thought to be an easy gesture to improve Congress's public image - failed.

A year of filibusters

Capitol Hill always gets more partisan as congressional elections draw near, but this year was not gridlock-as-usual, say member of Congress and congressional observers. ``The Republican willingness to use a partisan filibuster was unprecedented,'' says James Thurber, a political-science professor at the American University here.

There has been such a proliferation of filibusters - endless debates that prevent a vote from taking place - that a bipartisan group of former senators, representatives, Cabinet members, and governors has formed a group called Action, Not Gridlock! to protest what they see as the threat to majority rule. To end a filibuster, 60 percent of the Senate must vote to invoke cloture.

This year alone there have been more than 18 filibusters. During the 1960s, the average was two per year.

But in the last few months of this Congress, the operating motto for the Republican minority seemed to be: ``Where there's a will, there's a way.''

Republicans point out that some Democrats were not beyond using the available legislative tools to serve their own purposes. Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina effectively held up a vote on an international trade pact, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), until after the Nov. 8 elections in an apparent effort to protect his state's textile industry. Both houses of Congress will reconvene to vote on GATT, denying Clinton a much-sought-after preelection victory.

GOP `gridlock'

But as members of Congress fled town to go home and campaign, top Democratic officials from the president on down found their voice and began repeating what is likely to be a constant refrain over the next four weeks: Democrats worked for change and Republicans blocked it.

At a press conference Friday, Clinton blasted Republicans for hindering his agenda with a strategy to ``stop it, slow it, kill it, or just talk it to death.''

The public has to make a fundamental decision, said chief of staff Leon Panetta, speaking at a Monitor breakfast Friday. ``Do they want an administration, a president, a Congress that's trying to solve the problems, and trying to deal with the problems, or do they want basically to move backwards, or at best to the status quo?''

National message

Although some Democrats stress that congressional elections are local affairs, not referenda on the president, Mr. Panetta seemed happy to talk about a national message heading into November.

It is a national battle that Republican Party chairman Haley Barbour was happy to join at a Monitor breakfast the day before: ``Democrats really are running from Bill Clinton like scalded dogs and it's because they know that he's hurting, and that his policies are hurting.''

Mr. Barbour slammed the ``Clinton Congress'' repeatedly, saying ``the public is fed up.''

``Issues are the principal element of that,'' he said.

``The largest tax increase in American history, and the fact that not a single Republican voted for it and most of the Democrats did.'' he adds. ``The Clintons' proposal for a government-run health-care system, and the fact that many Democrats were out front for it early on. The refusal to cut the pork before they passed the crime bill. The conference on the crime bill was a corrupt process that made people even more incensed at Congress.''

This kind of statement enrages Democratic leaders like Sen. George Mitchell, because, they say, it's not true.

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