Congress's Fall Forecast

CONGRESS'S August recess will be a lull before the storm gathering over major spending legislation. Like tropical storms approaching the East Coast, this storm could take any number of paths, and it could lose energy and never become a ''big one.'' Its ''eye,'' around which everything swirls, is the Republicans' much-vaunted unity.

That unity has been showing fissures. Even in the House, where the GOP revolution was hatched, moderates have been peeling away from Speaker Newt Gingrich's team over environmental deregulation, Medicare overhaul, and other issues. A number of Republicans worry that their party could be veering too far to the right, leaving many voters behind.

But the Speaker and his lieutenants have been able to maintain party discipline regardless of dissent, passing such key items as the labor, health, and education spending bill.

In the Senate, however, Republican unity has always been more a hope than a fact. It's not just the Democrats who have qualms about majority leader Bob Dole's welfare-reform bill, for instance. Republicans to both Mr. Dole's left and right want changes. Texan Phil Gramm, vying with Dole for the GOP presidential nomination, wants to cut assistance to young mothers who have more babies while on welfare. Rhode Island's John Chafee wants to build in child care for welfare mothers who find jobs.

Faced with wide divergences in his own ranks and relentless criticism from the other side of the aisle, Dole shelved his determination to pass welfare reform before the recess. It'll merge into the storm this fall.

Beneath the looming legislative tempest lies a good deal of consensus on the need to trim government spending and on the necessity for new thinking in such areas as welfare. The House has followed a conservative game plan with deep spending reductions in education, environmental enforcement, and other areas that have strong supporters in Congress, as well as significant public backing.

That plan needs revision, which is what the storm - complete with threats to shut down the government by withholding debt extension - is all about. It could get pretty gusty, but what should emerge from the clouds is a more responsible path toward fiscal temperance.

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