WASHINGTON — If you watched the political conventions last month, you might have concluded that the United States government has eliminated its legislative branch.
It's no accident. Republicans don't want to talk about a Congress that's pulling some of the highest negatives in the history of polling. And Democrats would rather not call attention to the fact that all they've done in the last two years is play defense.
Under these circumstances, lawmakers are returning to Capitol Hill this week for a last burst of legislating. With just four weeks left, a fat calendar, and a public focused on the presidential race, it's not likely that either party will pick a serious fight. Expect lawmakers to conclude work on nuts-and-bolts issues like the 1997 budget without any serious acrimony; try to score a few symbolic points on subjects such as pension security, same-sex marriages, and juvenile crime; and promptly recess to start campaigning by the first of October.
"My sense is that most of the action of this session is behind us," says California Rep. Vic Fazio, a member of the Democratic leadership.
One reason for September's relative quiet is the slew of bills Congress passed before the August recess, including a minimum-wage hike, clean drinking water and pesticide bills, and welfare and health-insurance reforms. These bills, along with landmark telecommunications and farm legislation, will likely stand as the legacy of the 104th Congress.
The budget beckons
The most pressing task lawmakers face today is finishing work on the 13 budget bills for the 1997 fiscal year. Last winter, the 1996 budget became the chief battleground in a congressional war of ideas. The result was a pair of government shutdowns that ultimately destroyed the momentum of House Republicans and irritated voters.
This year, the House has already passed the entire budget, and the Senate has made progress on all but one bill. President Clinton has signed the agriculture appropriations bill, and three more bills have emerged from conference.
The debate nowadays is whether to try to cram all these measures through in three weeks or simply pass a continuing resolution that would fund the government at current levels until next year and leave the 105th Congress to straighten out the mess.
Another troublesome matter for Congress is a relatively mundane nuclear-waste bill. Because the bill designates a site in Nevada to serve as an interim storage facility, Nevada's senators have blocked it from advancing.
The real debate
But there may be some lively debates, particularly on immigration. A sweeping bill, now in conference, would increase border patrols, create a national identification system to keep illegals from getting jobs, and allow states to deny benefits to illegal immigrants, including public education for children who are not already enrolled. If the bill survives the Senate, Mr. Clinton may veto it.
On other fronts, Democrats and Republicans have hinted at several proposals designed to harden their electoral bases. The most notable will likely be a Republican attempt to override Clinton's veto of a bill that would ban "partial-birth abortions." The ban already passed the House by a margin large enough to override the veto, but the Senate tally was much closer. Republicans will likely put this forward close to the election, and some Democrats have hinted at a filibuster.
On other fronts, Republicans plan to pursue a bill that would prevent the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages or extending benefits to same-sex partners. Republicans also plan to introduce a bill that would stiffen penalties for violent juvenile offenders, including rules that would allow the worst offenders to be sent to adult prisons. Congress may also resume work on a bill to tighten airport security.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, too, has played with the idea of bringing up the Republicans' school-prayer amendment for a floor vote. And the Speaker has alluded to possibly proposing some kind of across-the-board tax cut.
Both parties are also anxious to introduce bills that their presidential candidates proposed at their conventions. In San Diego, Bob Dole advocated a bill that would prevent US troops from serving under any international command. In Chicago, Clinton touted legislation to guarantee women at least two days in the hospital after giving birth.
The biggest impediment to all these items is the schedule. With so much budgeteering to do, there may not be room for other initiatives that Republicans have sought for weeks.