For congressional Democrats -- an off-key swan song

It was an off-key end to a quarter of a century of Democratic rule on Capitol Hill -- a political coda foreshadowing a new political theme. The last in the string of congresses controlled by the Democrats -- whose reign over both the Senate and House of Representatives since 1955 is likely to be remembered by historians for sweeping civil rights laws and ambitious social programs (and spending) -- played out its final hours scratching futilely for enough votes to pass a fair-housing bill and uncharacteristically pruning $8.2 billion from the federal budget.

The long-governing Democrats had simply run out of time, votes, and national consensus as they prepared to turn over control of the Senate to the Republicans next month while clinging to a diminished majority in the House.

"This will be the last opportunity," Senate majority leader Robert C. byrd (D) of West Virginia intoned repeatedly in pleading for support to break a Republican filibuster holding up the fair housing bill. In the end, he failed by a margin of six votes on the civil rights measure. It was the kind of defeat on liberal Democratic legislation which his most recent predecessors, Lyndon B. Johnson and Mike Mansfield, had seldom suffered. But they had never had to try to hold together a diminished Democratic majority on the verge of being replaced by a new, Republican-controlled Senate.

Another stark symbol of the end of a legislative era occurred just days earlier. The outgoing Democratic Congress -- the last of 13 that in the past 26 years had multiplied federal spending on social programs twentyfold, from $14.5 billion in 1955 to $296.9 billion in 1980 -- voted the first postbudget "reconciliation" cuts in government spending in the history of the congressional budgeting process.

Most of the $8.2 billion in cuts came in the very type of social spending -- in fields such as education, public assistance, and health -- dear to the hearts of party bellwethers in House and Senate who had showed the way to a quarter-century of congresses dominated by their party.

So the Democrats relinquished their long, two-house grip on Congress, less in defiance than in frustration.

Among the Republicans who helped vex their rivals' departure were three senators with special reason to remember the onset of Democratic rule in 1955.

J. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, co-leader of the successful fight against the fair housing bill, will be one of only two GOP members of the new, Republican-controlled Senate to have served in the first of the long chain of Democratic senates. A freshman Democrat then, he became a Republican in 1964.

The other carryover is Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona, the ideological father of the now-burgeoning band of Senate GOP conservatives, who did his part in dethroning the Democrats in the November election by narrowly retaining his own endangered seat.

Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee, who will be transformed from minority to majority leader when the new Senate convenes next month, wasn't in Congress when it turned Democratic in 1955, but his father was serving in the House. One of the elder Baker's colleagues across the aisle in the then-new Democratic majority was a young West Virginia congressman named Robert C. Byrd.

As they give up their one-party rule of Capitol Hill, the Democrats leave a 25-year legislative legacy that stamps itself most indelibly on the fields of civil rights and social services.

Theirs were the congresses that enacted the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations and employment, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 forbidding practices in certain states that had for decades disenfranchised blacks, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 barring discrimination in housing -- which the outgoing Democratic majority vainly sought to toughen.

From these congresses, with varying degrees of cooperation from six presidents of both parties, also came rapid growth in the number, scope, and cost of social programs -- from Head Start and the Job corps to medicare and medicaid. The food stamp program, begun modestly in the early 1960s, has become a backbone of aid to low-income and unemployed Americans. It grew an average of 70 percent a year during the 1970s.

Overall, congressionally appropriated outlays to the poor doubled (even adjusting for inflation) in the past decade alone, reaching $2,750 per poor person, 12 percent of the annual federal budget.

But as the Democrats' 26-year congressional dominance ends, a sense of accomplishment seems to have been overtaken by one of frustration.

Not that there weren't achievements. This Congress put into place what Senate majority leader Byrd calls "the basic components of a comprehensive national energy policy" -- phasing out federal price controls on key fuels, taxing oil company "windfall" profits, creating a Cabinet-level Department of Energy, fostering the development of synthetic fuels.

The banking, trucking, and rail industries were freed of much federal regulation. The Civil Service System was overhauled. Nearly one-third of Alaska was set aside as national parks and wilderness areas. A cleanup program was established for hazardous chemical wastes.

But many more legislative priorities were left languishing, among them: a second-stage strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT II), withdrawn from the Senate agenda earlier this year; establishment of an energy mobilization board to expedite energy projects; governmentwide regulatory reform; national health insurance; welfare reform; a youth jobs bill; rewriting the federal criminal code; and new charters for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and intelligence agencies.

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