In the nation's capital, legislative action is more jammed up than a downtown exit road at rush hour. With only a week to go before summer recess, congressional leaders are trying to switch traffic signals that have been stuck on red for nearly all major bills.
Senate Republicans have fashioned a last-minute plan aimed at getting talks going again on the federal budget, which has been deadlocked for most of the summer. Their bold new package includes new taxes, despite the President's staunch anti-tax stand, and would restrain increases in federal pensions in the face of equally strong Democratic opposition.
``I've been saying for some time we have to get something new on the table,'' said Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole (R) of Kansas. The plan, which was to be unveiled formally late yesterday, is expected to include a $5-a-barrel tax on imported oil. As described in advance, it would provide biannual cost-of-living increases for social security and indexing of income taxes.
``It could be the last grand play,'' said House Budget Committee chairman William H. Gray III (D) of Pennsylvania. At any rate, the Senate proposal will prompt the House to counter with an offer of its own, perhaps paving the way to a budget agreement by the end of next week.
While the budget deadlock has grabbed most of the attention, it is but one of many stalemates in recent weeks on Capitol Hill.
The two houses are embroiled in a lengthy conference on the defense bill. As of early yesterday, they had still not worked out an agreement on building new nerve gas weapons. Liberal members were holding out for stringent new rules against wasteful spending by the Pentagon.
Agriculture committees are struggling with a farm bill, dampening Senator Dole's hopes for action before the recess. Wheat farmers, who predominate in his home state of Kansas, will soon be planting their winter crop. Unless Congress acts, they will have little guidance from the government about the new farm policy.
A supplemental spending bill that includes aid President Reagan seeks for Nicaraguan rebels has also bogged down.
Appropriations Committee chairman Jamie Whitten (D) of Mississippi is resisting Senate rules to require local cost-sharing for water projects.
A last-minute pile-up is customary, but ``this is unusual,'' says a House GOP leadership aide. ``Everyone seems so dug in on issues.''
Usually the lawmakers begin working late into evenings and making compromises to complete important bills as a long vacation nears. That has not yet happened this month.
``Resistance and patience are part of the legislative struggle,'' observes Christopher J. Matthews, an aide to House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts, explaining that members prefer waiting to the last minute before making deals and compromises.
``Some members know they can enforce their will through endurance,'' says Mr. Matthews.
Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York, calling himself an optimist, predicted that much of the stalled legislation, including the budget, will move soon. ``Sometimes it takes a deadline like an adjournment . . . to focus the mind,'' he said.
Even if Congress begins moving speedily next week, several trends have contributed to keep the legislative machinery in low gear.
``Maybe it reflects a mix of opinion,'' Matthews says. For example, Matthews notes, ``there's a real difference of view'' on whether to restrain cost-of-living adjustments for social security.