WASHINGTON — So far, the 105th Congress has been unremarkable, with few achievements to its credit. But this week could go a long way toward changing that.
In an atmosphere left highly charged by a number of political brawls, Congress will take up a series of contentious issues that will help set the tone for the rest of the session.
This will be a decisive week for the budget if either a deal is reached or White House and congressional negotiators decide to throw in the towel. Also, the Senate will debate and vote on a chemical weapons treaty - an issue with global implications that divides members within their own parties.
These weighty matters take place against a background of anger in both houses. Senate Democrats are outraged by a party-line Rules Committee vote to conduct a broader investigation of last fall's Louisiana Senate race than the one recommended by a bipartisan team of lawyers. In the House of Representatives, the two parties are barely on speaking terms after Speaker Newt Gingrich's announcement that he would pay a $300,000 ethics penalty with the help of a loan from former Sen. Bob Dole.
On the budget issue, negotiators will resume their efforts Wednesday, in a sign that both sides still think they can reach an agreement. But few details have emerged from the talks and those that have emerged displeased Budget Committee Democrats.
Clearing the air
They met Thursday with presidential advisers Franklin Raines and Gene Sperling, minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and ranking committee Democrat Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey to complain about presidential strategy "There was some misunderstanding about what concessions had or had not been made," said Senator Daschle. "We cleared the air."
The Senate will also finally take up the Chemical Weapons Convention Wednesday in a delicately choreographed deal. In order to proceed to the treaty, the Senate first debated and passed a bill to outlaw production, storage, or shipment of chemical and biological weapons in the United States. The president, meanwhile, announced that the US Information Agency and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency would be merged into the State Department and subordinate the Agency for International Development to the Secretary of State. Supporters are not sanguine about the treaty's prospects.
"There is a 50-50 chance we can pass this treaty this week," Daschle says. "Clearly this is not in the bag yet."
Senator Lott's sway
Many say the vote by majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi on the treaty, which needs a two-thirds vote for ratification, will sway the large number of undecided Republicans. Sen. Lott is unenthusiastic: "I have my doubts," he said. "I am not sure that the day after [the] vote - if indeed it should pass - that we will have fewer chemical weapons in the world."
Clinton and Senate Republicans have agreed on 28 amendments to the ratification resolution, but disagree on five more. A final vote is set for Thursday.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are upset about the Rules Committee's decision to conduct a full investigation into charges of electoral fraud in the Louisiana Senate race between victor Mary Landrieu (D) and Woody Jenkins (R). A bipartisan team of lawyers had recommended that the committee investigate three of Jenkins's allegations but dismiss four others. Instead, committee chairman Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia and his fellow Republicans decided to hire a Republican law firm to investigate all the allegations, prompting Daschle to charge the GOP was trying to "steal the election." "There's absolutely no possibility that Senator Landrieu will be unseated in this process," he says.
In the House, Democrats kept up the attack on Speaker Gingrich over his decision to pay off the penalty from his ethics investigation using a loan from former Senator Dole.
The House is still awaiting a report from an ethics-reform task force. The second extension of a moratorium on ethics complaints expires Wednesday. When it is lifted, Gingrich's opponents could refile a complaint charging the Speaker with obtaining improper support from GOPAC, a political action committee he founded.