Surprise! Politics tops agenda in Congress

Legislators return to capital, but there'll be no big bills, lots of

As the Republican-led Congress formally convened its first session of the new century this week, the noontime rap of a wooden gavel rang out into an almost deserted House of Representatives.

No flurry of legislative activity here: In just five minutes, the House adjourned.

The quiet opening day is symbolic of a subdued mood on Capitol Hill, where low legislative expectations and a preoccupation with the November election prevail. Indeed, the ornate hallways and office suites were so markedly devoid of lawmakers Monday that even staff members were commenting.

"I haven't seen a soul," said a House GOP staffer. "It's pretty odd," said another.

Top Republican leaders of Congress are all but ruling out sweeping initiatives during this year's abbreviated session, stressing modest compromises instead. Meanwhile, Republicans are anxious about retaining control of Congress - especially their thin, 222 to 211 House majority.

"Major things will have to wait on the next president and the next Congress," Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi said recently. House majority whip Tom DeLay (R) of Texas agreed, suggesting conservatives should focus less on bold legislation now than on the "dream" of a GOP president next year.

Democrats, for their part, can hardly wait to slap a "do-nothing" label on the Congress that will serve as a backdrop for President Clinton's lengthy State of the Union address Jan. 27.

"We already know the state of this House - lost in inaction," Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D) of Texas charged before an empty chamber in the only speech Jan. 24.

Morale has sagged a little among congressional Republicans of late, prompted in part by a spate of recent GOP retirements from the House. At the last count, 22 Republicans will leave the House after this session as a result of retirement or term limits - compared with only half a dozen Democrats. The gap exacerbates worries among House GOP members that they won't win back a majority this fall.

"Every Republican is very concerned. We have a very tight margin," says Rep. John Porter (R) of Illinois, who is retiring after serving 22 years.

Although the number of GOP members leaving is not unusually high, the gap indicates that Democratic House leaders have been far more successful than their Republican counterparts in persuading members to stay on.

"Democrats have managed to browbeat their people into running again, and that makes it more difficult for us - no doubt about it," says Mr. Porter, one of the few lawmakers in the office Jan. 24. (He acknowledged he was only in town because he recently moved to a new Washington home.)

Indeed, GOP departures include senior committee veterans such as Porter and Education Committee Chairman Rep. William Goodling. Porter, an appropriations subcommittee chairman, says the GOP leadership decision to limit committee chairmen to six-year terms, while admirable, was a factor that pushed him to bow out now.

The House GOP leadership is also thinning. House Republican Conference (HRC) Vice Chairman Rep. Tillie Fowler of Florida decided to fulfill a term-limits pledge that she earlier considered breaking. HRC Chairman J.C. Watts of Oklahoma says he will reveal Monday whether he will seek re-election.

In an effort by GOP leaders to raise spirits, the first major event on the House calendar will be a three-day retreat in Pennsylvania Feb. 2-4. With a program that includes inspirational speakers such as Pennsylvania State University football coach Joe Paterno, GOP leaders seek to rally Republicans around their pragmatic agenda and boost hopes for an election win.

"[The retreat] is to build up the team," says Rep. Fred Upton (R) of Michigan, relaxing in an empty, freshly dusted House Speaker's lobby after he gaveled in the new session Jan. 24.

Speculating over whether Democrats will retake the House, giving Rep. Richard Gephardt the Speaker's gavel next January, Mr. Upton admitted that the House is "up for grabs."

He and other Republican members say they are anxious to pass at least modest pieces of legislation in order to strengthen the GOP's. Small tax cuts, debt reduction, health-care reform and prescription-drugs benefits, and a minimum-wage increase are areas where compromise appears possible. Action on trade and high-technology issues are also 'go' priorities."

"It's critical for Republicans to show we can govern," says Upton. Ironically, there are reasons for more optimism and less doom-and-gloom for Hill Republicans, some GOP lawmakers and staffers say.

For example, prospects for compromises on tax cuts and new spending are likely to be enhanced Jan. 26, when the Congressional Budget Office announces new, higher estimates for the federal budget surplus.

Meanwhile, Republican ratings have risen to match or slightly exceed those of Democrats in recent polls that gauge public support. And although the public trusts Democrats to do a better job handling top-ranked issues such as education, health care, and Social Security, they give Republicans far stronger marks for demonstrating values such as responsibility.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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