The Contract: Still Rolling

DURING the first 100 days of the 104th Congress, many observers (present company included) noted that the Senate would duly slow the House's highballing Contract With America. Much was said about the more deliberative nature of the upper chamber.

That institutional leaning hasn't disappeared, certainly, but a strong political impulse to jump aboard the Contract Express, rather than apply the brakes, has unmistakably appeared.

The top Republicans in the Senate -- notably majority leader Bob Dole and whip Trent Lott -- have been talking about the need to catch up with the House. And a coterie of junior GOP senators -- Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Jon Kyl of Arizona, and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, for example -- are cheering on the Contract as avidly as any of Speaker Gingrich's troops.

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This doesn't mean, however, that all the measures rushed through by Gingrich and crew will roll ahead in the Senate. Only one item, unfunded mandates, has cleared both houses so far. The balanced budget amendment went down in the Senate; term limits in the House.

And some major items, such as welfare reform, are likely to be chewed over endlessly by senators. The Democratic minority retains ample ability to talk something to death.

Legal reform, another Contract biggie, last week showed the circuitous path such measures can take in the Senate. Senator Dole proposed an amendment that expanded a middling, bipartisan punitive-damages bill to embrace civil suits brought in state and federal courts. In the process he offended even some GOP colleagues, who said this would trample on state prerogatives. But the amendment, which narrowly passed, brought the Senate bill much more in line with the House's legislation on the subject -- though it could make final passage of a tort reform measure more difficult.

Similar twists and detours await regulatory reform, aspects of the anticrime legislation included in the Contract, and welfare spending cuts. The $189 billion tax cut passed by the House has its champions in the Senate, and its well-dug-in opponents. Republican strategists ultimately may decide to couple some particularly dicey Contract items to virtually veto-proof vehicles, such as a bill to raise the national debt ceiling.

The Contract will not emerge from the Senate as a clone of what the House put together. But it's becoming clear that much more of it could reach the president's desk than earlier expected. That freight train still has lots of steam.

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