WASHINGTON — AFTER a preliminary year long on confrontation but short on results, President Clinton and the Republican Congress have entered a final political contest that promises to be one of America's wildest and most historic.
Who prevails in November's election will depend in part on how adroitly each camp maneuvers through a nettlesome legislative calendar and whether either can deliver the kind of change voters seem to covet.
A congressional agenda that includes hot-button issues such as immigration, campaign-finance reform, and the environment - as well as further wrangling over the budget - will provide ample opportunity for each side to shine or stumble.
Twelve months ago it looked as if the future direction of the country might have been settled by now. The triumphant GOP, in control of Congress for the first time since the 1950s, promised to slash government to the bone, while sending power back to the states and reining in some of the nation's big entitlement programs, such as Medicaid.
Things haven't quite worked out that way. Some key elements of the Contract With America - such as a constitutional amendment to balance the budget - were defeated in the Senate. Others were vetoed by the president. Some are contained in the now-stalled resolution to balance the budget in seven years.
The budget remains Congress's most pressing issue. At this writing, Mr. Clinton and congressional leaders were moving toward a piecemeal approach, where the most innocuous reforms would be enacted, while the most intractable issues would be set aside until after the election.
According to a top House Republican aide, congressional leaders are prepared to use riders on appropriations bills, stopgap measures, and freestanding bills in the meantime - ''whatever it takes,'' he says - to move toward lower deficits.
While House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich (R) of Ohio said earlier this week that it would be a ''miracle'' if a complete agreement were struck, the aide predicted that the new GOP strategy would yield separate agreements on Medicare, Medicaid, and welfare reform before year's end.
But hurdles remain. While both sides agree on the total amount of cuts to make, they disagree on the proper size and nature of a tax cut, how strongly to encourage Medicare recipients to enter private health plans, and how much control states should gain over entitlement programs for the poor.
So far, GOP leaders have hinted that if no deal can be struck with the president, they will employ a strategy of approving funding for programs they favor.
Yet it is unclear whether the GOP leadership can persuade the irreverent freshmen to go along. Meanwhile, the ever-temperate Senate seems more inclined to meet the president halfway. As another possible government shutdown approaches tonight, polls show that Congress is shouldering more of the blame.
''It's easy for [White House chief of staff] Leon Panetta to say Democrats and Republicans should split the difference between their budget proposals,'' says former Oklahoma Rep. Mickey Edwards (R). ''But for Republicans, this would not be a compromise, but a defeat.''
So, there are issues beyond the budget
Soon the battle will spread to other fronts. In the environmental arena, observers tend to agree that Republicans have been losing the war of public perceptions. Controversial proposals, like opening the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, have fueled charges of extremism. Upcoming debates on scaling back the Endangered Species Act and the Superfund waste cleanup program, and on revising the Clean Water Act, could enhance the argument that Republicans harbor a disregard for the environment.
Likewise, the Republican plan to overhaul the nation's regulatory system could bolster critics who say the party is indifferent to protecting workers and punishing polluters.
Both parties will compete for the ''law and order'' mantle. Debates about revising the anticrime bill, toughening immigration laws, and fighting terrorism dot the agenda.
The public will also pay close attention to campaign-finance reform and the line-item veto. Designed, respectively, to slow the influence of big donors on campaigns and to act as a bulwark against pork-barrel spending, these bills could be dangerous to dissenters. Ironically, with a Democrat in the White House and a GOP majority in Congress, both laws are more advantageous to Democrats.
Whatever the outcome, however, the rules are set. In his State of the Union speech, Clinton pronounced the era of big government dead, and reiterated his desire to balance the budget in seven years. To Republicans in Congress, that smells a lot like victory. ''We've been successful already because we've managed to control the debate,'' argues Sen. Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania.