Congress Gets a C, For Compromise

GOP goes from fiery to election-year friendly

Evolution - not revolution - now looks to be the likely legacy of the Republican-led 104th Congress.

True, last week Capitol Hill was aflurry with legislative activity. At least one of the big bills that passed, welfare reform, appears historic in its own right.

But many of the most cherished goals of GOP firebrands, from congressional term limits to the elimination of the Commerce Department, remain unreached. Other efforts, such as a drive to reform federal rule-making procedures, were significantly softened by Democratic opposition.

Since winning control of the House and Senate in 1994, Republican leaders may have learned much about the limits of power in a divided US government. It's a lesson President Clinton learned before them, the hard way: Consider that the health insurance bill approved by lawmakers Aug. 2 is but a modest echo of the White House's huge health proposal of 1993.

In the US system, "it's very hard to change anything very dramatically," says Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside.

This doesn't mean the GOP Congress necessarily looks vulnerable to a "do-nothing" tag in the upcoming election campaign. If nothing else, last week's pre-recess charge may give Republican members reason enough to boast about their productivity.

For one thing, the welfare-reform effort that cleared Washington last week has been in the works "for a generation," noted Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi at an end-of-session press conference.

The sweeping measure changes the whole philosophy that underlies federal welfare, switching relief from an open-ended entitlement to a limited aid system intended to push recipients into the work force.

President Clinton's vow to sign the welfare bill means it will soon become the law of the land, despite warnings from liberal Democrats that it doesn't take into account how people on welfare actually behave and that it could throw hundreds of thousands of children into poverty.

Several other large pieces of legislation approved by Congress in its last-minute rush clearly rate a "major" label.

Americans will find their medical insurance more portable - easier to take from job to job - under a health bill that finally passed after weeks of partisan wrangling over its details.

The Kennedy-Kassebaum bill (named for its original co-sponsors, Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and GOP Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas) also aims to prevent insurance firms from denying policies to those with preexisting medical conditions.

A Safe Drinking Water Bill approved last Friday will update federal standards for the cleanliness of tap water, as well as provide $1 billion in federal loans to states for water-quality improvements. And the House and Senate last week agreed to raise the US minimum wage from $4.25 an hour to $4.75 an hour on Oct. 1, and $5.15 on hour on Sept. 1, 1997.

Long sought by Democrats, the minimum-wage hike is expected to affect about 10 million American workers.

Many Republicans have opposed the move, on grounds that it could hurt small businesses and reduce the number of jobs available.

To help win GOP votes, the wage legislation also included a package of various tax reductions estimated to be worth some $20 billion over the next 10 years.

The House and Senate Republican leadership was quick to claim credit for this burst of bill-making.

When the legislation of last week is added on to things already accomplished - federal agriculture policy reform, a telecommunications bill, budget cuts - the result is evidence of the most active Congress in decades, said GOP lawmakers.

"We're all part of the most significant Congress in a generation," boasted Rep. John Boehner (R) of Ohio.

Democrats, on the other hand, claimed that the Republican leadership started to get things done only after it abandoned the "extremism" of its early days and moved more towards the center.

Credit for starting the health-insurance ball rolling, they point out, goes partly to Democratic Senator Kennedy; the minimum-wage bill was at first vehemently opposed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other key Republicans.

The GOP wasn't getting anywhere "until we forced them to the middle on health care, minimum wage, and spending," Sen. Wendell Ford (D) of Kentucky said Aug. 2.

Aside from all this chest-thumping, one thing seems clear: The GOP congressional leadership didn't change the country as much as it hoped it might. Sweeping alterations in the form of American government, represented by a proposed constitutional amendment to balance the budget and congressional term limits, were defeated. Budget cuts weren't nearly as deep as many Republicans wanted.

Following the public-relations disaster of the government-shutdown showdown with the White House, many Republicans grew leery of continued budget-cut efforts.

Perhaps their goals just weren't realistic from the start.

"The problem is they are being compared to their own revolutionary hopes and expectations, which weren't realistic given the situation," says Dave Mason of the Heritage Foundation.

Back in '94, GOP leaders may have underestimated the power that remained in the hands of the Democratic White House.

Mr. Mason figures they passed 20 to 30 percent of their agenda - which means they did "tremendously well" when compared with other Congresses, he says.

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