Agenda for lame-duck Congress: jobs, jobs, jobs

The lame-duck Congress that the President asked for already seems to be slipping out of White House control.

In its first week, the session is turning into a country auction, as Democrats and Republicans bid for programs to boost the economy. Democrats are making the highest bid, calling for a $10 billion package to repair roads, hospitals, and public housing and provide up to 670,000 jobs.

Even Republicans are proving difficult to handle. President Reagan, after meeting with Republican leaders on Tuesday, said he was backing down from his proposal to speed up the 10 percent income tax cut scheduled for July as a stimulant to the economy.

''We discussed the difficulty of getting this passed,'' said Mr. Reagan, adding the main concern was that advancing the tax cut would add to the federal deficit.

The idea of an early tax cut had already flopped on Capitol Hill, and Republican leaders warned the President that if he pushed it, Democrats might launch an attack on the July 1 tax break. House minority leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois related after the meeting that the President said, ''Well, I don't exactly see all that much enthusiasm for the advance.''

Instead, the President said he will push for his $5.5 billion highway-construction and mass-transit program that would produce some 320,000 jobs. His second priority is ''enterprise zone'' legislation, long stalled on Capitol Hill, which targets depressed areas for economic assistance. He asked for action on both proposals during the three-week final session of the 97th Congress.

The highway jobs bill seems assured of passage in some form, since the concept is backed by both parties. As sent to the Hill this week, the White House bill calls for a 5-cent-per-gallon ''user charge'' on gasoline and diesel fuels. The increase, the first since 1959, would raise the federal tax on fuel to 9 cents a gallon next April. Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis says he has no estimate of how the added 5 cents, which would be charged at the refinery, would affect pump prices.

The highway jobs bill, in conservative fashion, is a pay-as-you-go plan which would collect from motorists and commercial operators the funds to pay for the damage they do to highways and bridges. Heavy trucks, which do the greatest damage, would pay the highest fees.

However, the administration also has added some ''sweeteners'' for truckers - such as allowing double trailers and wider loads on interstate highways - that are certain to be controversial. In a break from the past, the plan would also designate 1 cent of the tax to mass transit.

Even while proposing the jobs bill, the White House paints the proposal as aimed at the nation's crumbling highways, not at creating jobs. ''The primary objective,'' writes Vice-President George Bush in a letter describing the bill, ''is to provide renewed investment to help rebuild our nation's deterioriating infrastructure.''

Democrats have embraced the idea, but House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. won't stop there. The Massachusetts Democrat wants to double the GOP offer.

Although still not finished, the Democratic package would add $5 billion for repairing veterans hospitals and other public buildings, create an estimated 300 ,000 to 320,000 additional jobs, and revive a housing stimulus measure to help moderate-income families.

The Democratic proposals have little chance of survival in the three-week session. Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee has said Congress already has more work than it can handle. If the Democrats could win in the Senate, they would then face the threat of a presidential veto. President Reagan rejected the Democratic plan summarily, calling it ''self-defeating.''

Still, the lame-duck session offers a testing ground for proposals and a chance for Democrats to take the initiative on the economy. With just-elected Democratic recruits already arriving in town for ''freshman orientation,'' the short session could be only a preview of jobs programs to come in the new Congress in January.

Even Republicans are heeding the call.

''It's pretty clear that jobs will be the No. 1 issue before us in the next Congress,'' said Mr. Baker after the White House meeting. Baker also made no promises for completing a laundry list of White House hopes for the lame-duck session, including the Caribbean Basin initiative to aid Latin America, funding for the MX missile, the Clean Air Act revision, a nuclear-waste disposal bill, a major immigration reform, approval of a radio program beamed at Cuba, and anticrime legislation.

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