Contract Renewal?

IN case you hadn't noticed, the Contract With America, acted on so expeditiously in the House, has wandered off course since landing in the Senate.

That was expected. It was never the Senate Republicans' contract, as some GOP members of that body noted early on.

As things stand, it appears some items in the Contract may emerge from the Senate, but with sharp edges removed. Others aren't likely to resurface for a long time, caught up in presidential politics as well as ideological infighting.

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Here's a quick rundown on how a few major Contract items are faring:

Welfare reform. At present, it's mired in back-room discussions, not yet scheduled for floor debate. Aspects of the reforms passed by the House, such as cutting off aid payments to unwed mothers, are splitting Republicans in the Senate. A number of conservatives, such as GOP presidential contender Phil Gramm, are standing firm for strict cutoffs. The best route? Modify punitive cutoffs and strengthen work requirements. The system needs reform, yes, but its national purpose of helping people become employed, productive citizens - and in many cases better family providers - shouldn't be lost.

Regulatory reform. Democratic opposition waylayed a bill requiring cost-benefit analysis of health and environmental regulations. There's still consensus in the Senate that the costs of government rules should be assessed in order to establish priorities and eliminate wasteful regulations. But there's vigorous opposition to allowing businesses greater leeway to sue regulators. Outlook: Reform is needed and compromise ought to be possible.

Tax cuts. What Speaker Newt Gingrich termed the ''crown jewel'' of the Contract is likely to get lost in a political mud fight. Democrats denounce proposed child tax credits for families with incomes up to $200,000 and capital gains decreases as sops for the rich. Some key Senate Republicans would like to see the income limit for the tax credit cut by half. The most cogent fact: Substantial tax cuts, both Republican and Democratic versions, undermine the push toward zero deficits espoused by the Contract and the president and deserve dilution in the Senate. Deficit cuts are the meal; tax cuts, dessert.

Other notable planks in the Contract have passed both chambers only to hit rocky ground in the conference committees where House and Senate members hammer out their differences. Product liability reform is in those straits, as is the line-item veto. In both instances, chasms exist between competing versions, and agreement is not yet in sight.

The balanced-budget amendment and term-limit legislation, which loomed so large early this year, are out of sight at the moment.

It's too early to sound a knell for the Contract. Much of the House Republicans' remarkable legislative thrust was well aimed; support for some of the reforms extends all the way to the White House.

With the August recess at hand, any significant action on items such as welfare reform will have to come this fall. Presidential competitors should stand aside long enough to let the compromise process go forward. Much, if far from all, of the Contract should have a life beyond those first 100 days.

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