Ahead for Congress: the tough issues

Now comes the tough part.

After a history-making first session that passed the biggest tax cut ever and sliced spending for social programs, Congress returns this week from its extended break. The economy is still in trouble, the federal deficit projections continue to climb, and the contentious social issues - busing and abortion - await the members.

All of this comes in an election year, when all 435 House seats, plus 33 in the Senate, are at stake. Representatives are even less secure this election year since the states are redrawing their district lines to conform to 1980 census figures. Many members will have new territories to woo before November.

''There probably will be some Republicans who were with us (on House votes) last year who will not be with us this year because they can't be in an election year,'' says Rep. Tom Loeffler, a Texas Republican. His task is to work with conservative Democrats, the ''boll weevils,'' encouraging them to back President Reagan. During the last session that effort was tremendously successful. Democratic votes made the Reagan victories possible.

Wearing cowboy boots and a Western shirt on one of his last remaining days to relax before the new session opens, Congressman Loeffler points out some of the challenges now before Congress.

Cutbacks in social programs will come harder this time, he says. ''We've taken those easier reductions in discretionary spending last year.''

Some on Capitol Hill, especially on the Senate side, are saying that these ''discretionary'' programs, ranging from job training to education aid, have taken enough cuts. It now is time to dig into the gigantic ''entitlements,'' they say. These programs include payments mandated by law, such as government pensions, medicare, and veterans benefits, as well as the politically untouchable social security program.

But Loeffler echoes the sentiment of many in the House when he says, ''I don't think there will be that much (cutting of entitlements) in an election year.'' Instead, he says the House will support more whittling away at other programs, such as school lunches.

Attacking the $100 billion-plus budget deficit predicted for 1983 may even be more controversial when it comes to taxes. Raising taxes is never a popular election-year tactic, and many of the staunchest Republicans, led by Rep. Jack F. Kemp (R) of New York, oppose virtually all increases. Democrats and Republicans have lined up against ''luxury'' taxes on alcohol and tobacco, a plan that the Reagan administration apparently abandoned late last week.

Although the biggest issues in the coming term will be those with dollar signs, they will not be the only ones facing the second session of the 97th Congress.

The controversial social issues, which gave way to the Reagan economic program last year, will wait no longer. On Feb. 1 the Senate will vote on the most stringent antibusing measure yet. Attached as a ''rider'' to a Department of Justice appropriations bill, the amendment would ban virtually all busing for racial desegregation. The proposal, similar to one already passed by the House, touched off a filibuster last term.

Abortion foes are certain to have their long-delayed floor debate in the Senate. In their efforts to make abortion illegal, they have yet to choose between two strategies, the so-called ''human life'' bill that declares a fetus to be a human being or an amendment to the Constitution that would require a two-thirds majority.

Chances for final passage of any major new antiabortion legislation look slim this year. However, the Republican leadership has promised to open the Senate floor to antiabortion leader Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina.

Many other major issues will also be crowding onto Capitol Hill, although members will have little time for considering them as they shuttle back and forth to their districts to strengthen ties with voters. Among these issues: extending the 1965 Voting Rights Act, natural gas pricing, a plea from farmers for more help, and a proposed Reagan increase of 15 percent in defense spending.

Also still ahead is a rewriting of the Clean Air Act, popular among voters but not among business leaders, especially carmakers. In an election year, that makes for a difficult decision.

''There'll be a lot more political posturing,'' says Tom C. Griscom, aide to Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee. ''It'll be a lot harder,'' he says.

Still unknown is the role that the President will play in the next session. Last year Mr. Reagan succeeded because he ''wholesaled and retailed'' his policies, said government Prof. Allen Schick at a recent American Enterprise Institute conference. In other words, Mr. Schick said, the President found time to meet with both Congress and with the American public to win support for his economic program.

He will have the same tasks ahead for this year, but he will be working with a Congress partly distracted by visions of voting booths less than 10 months away.

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