Congress comes to grips with touchy social issues before heading home for August recess

Usually the steamy days of August are no time to prod Washington into action. Even the morning traffic seems to dissipate, and the capital city would be a ghost town if not for the tourists.

This year is different. Traffic is as snarled as ever these days. The Smithsonian Institution reports that tourism has dipped 10 percent, but no matter. There are still plenty of natives in Washington, as Congress rushes to finish its work so that members can go home and campaign for the coming fall elections.

Even President Reagan has been trapped in the city, forced to delay his two-week trip to California while he tries to talk a reluctant Congress into approving a $98.9 billion, three-year tax hike.

Coming only two months before the elections, the tax bill wins top billing on the list of unpleasant tasks for Congress to complete. Members are agonizing over the proposal, particularly a provision for withholding 10 percent of interest and dividends. Publicly and privately, congressmen are hoping that the ''great persuader'' in the White House will sell the tax raise to the American public and save them from the wrath of their constituents. President Reagan and his allies will be pushing to complete the tax bill this week, just before Congress takes its Labor Day recess.

Only slightly less contentious is the long-delayed debate over abortion, which the Senate must finish this week. For a year and a half majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee has promised the anti-abortion wing of his party a chance to vote on that issue, and now he is delivering on that pledge. Most members of Congress dislike voting on abortion. It's a highly emotional issue certain to earn enemies regardless of how they vote. But there will be no place to hide in the Senate this week - abortion foes are taking up their cause during action to raise the limit on the national debt.

Without a higher debt ceiling, raised from a little over $1 trillion to $1.29 trillion, the government would run out of cash as early as September and grind to a halt.

With the debt-limit bill held hostage, senators will be forced to vote up or down on two anti-abortion measures. One, sponsored by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) of Utah, would amend the Constitution to permit restrictions on abortion, and a proposal by Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, would give full constitutional rights to unborn children.

Regardless of how the vote comes out, Congress will then be close to the end of its list of must-do items. After taxes, the debt limit, and some spending cuts, a Senate leadership aide predicts, Congress will put all of the remaining spending bills into one big ''continuing resolution'' and adjourn the first week of October. Left in the dust will probably be some of the year's most controversial issues:

* The balanced budget amendment. Backed by the President at a Capitol Hill rally and passed by the Senate, the amendment will probably see no House action before adjournment. House leaders don't like the amendment.

* Anti-busing proposal. Another measure passed by the Senate, it seeks to ban most busing for school desegregation. The House leadership has successfully bottled up the measure, keeping it from a vote.

* The Clean Air Act. Already overdue for a major rewrite, the Clean Air Act got caught in the crossfire between conservationists and industry. The result is likely to be no action.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.