Folks back home tell Congress: give jobs priority

After visiting with the folks back home, lawmakers have returned from their recess convinced that most Americans are worried about the fragile economy and not about possible dirty tricks during the 1980 elections.

The issue of President Carter's debate briefing books found in Reagan White House files ''never came up,'' said House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. this week. The Massachusetts Democrat said his constituents talked about jobs and medicare.

So Speaker O'Neill, who is fond of saying that the House reflects the will of the people, is snubbing the House subcommittee that is investigating the campaign controversy. Such probes merely ''divert attention'' from other issues such as unemployment, he says.

Even as the jobless rate has dipped to 10 percent, the Democratic-controlled House is continuing to push for bills that will keep jobs and recession relief in the spotlight.

''They are still saying we're going to be in the high nines (9 percent unemployment) through next year,'' says an aide to House Democratic whip Thomas S. Foley of Washington. ''That doesn't preclude the need for some kind of relief.''

''No matter what the level of recovery, there are areas that don't share in the general prosperity,'' said James L. Oberstar (D) of Minnesota, after an overwhelming victory Tuesday for his $4.2 billion public-works authorization bill. It would target funds for highways, sewer and water systems, and other projects to low-income, high-unemployment communities around the nation.

A long list of ''Jobs II'' programs is working its way through Congress, which during the throes of the recession earlier this year passed a short-term jobs and recession relief bill. Phase 2 programs range from mortgage foreclosure aid to farmers and homeowners to funds for distributing surplus food, as well as a major public-service jobs bill.

Except for the public-service bill, which even some Democrats say is too expensive, the measures are winning easy victories in the House, but running into a brick wall in the GOP-controlled Senate.

''I expect they will pass a big Jobs II-type program,'' says a Senate leadership aide, who predicts it will not become law. ''I just don't expect any (Senate) action,'' he adds, describing the House Democrats as staking out political ground.

Rep. Bill Alexander (D) of Arkansas, deputy Democratic whip, concedes that politics is involved. ''These bills are setting the debate for the '84 presidential and congressional elections,'' he says, even if they fail in the Senate.

Representative Alexander also holds that the Democratic jobs bills are ''not the answer,'' but only a beginning. ''Jobs programs are effective, but they're not permanent,'' he says, and the real political message is that addressing the entire problem of the economy requires ''an administration that is teamed up with Congress.''

The Arkansas Democrat predicts that the recovery will not take the wind out of jobs program sails because the basic economic problems persist. ''We still have historic federal deficits, record trade deficits, and squeamish financial markets,'' he says.

Some Republicans, however, are already pointing to the recovery. ''Over the last six months there has been the greatest drop in unemployment since the 1940s ,'' Rep. Dan Lungren (R) of California told his colleagues this week. Arguing for cutting the Oberstar public-works bill in half, he warned against government deficits that boost interest rates.

''Economists suggest that the economic recovery could be killed by interest rates,'' Mr. Lungren said.

One relief bill that seems likely to win in both houses is proposed health insurance for unemployed workers and their families. The House is expected to approve a $4 billion plan this week, and the Senate has already begun work on a scaled-down plan.

''I want to make absolutely sure that we don't contribute to our bloated federal deficit by enacting this program without comparable revenue increases or spending cuts,'' said Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas as his Senate Finance Committee began marking up the health benefits bill for the jobless.

But, he added, ''A real need exists. This is a first step toward addressing that need.''

Also figuring into the proposed domestic plans is President Reagan, who has been brandishing veto threats against big-spending legislation. While some sources on Capitol Hill doubt he will actually veto many bills, the threat has already helped keep congressional committees in line as they draw up legislation.

The House bill on health benefits, for example, has been reduced to the level set by the federal budget. And supporters of a multibillion-dollar housing authorization bill this week reluctantly lowered the funding to ensure passage on the House floor.

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