Congress in '88: politics, not lawmaking

President Reagan's State of the Union address Monday night marked the start of a long goodbye. For the rest of his final year in office, the President will continue to hammer away at familiar themes. In his Monday night address he cited two - the need for constitutional amendments banning abortion and requiring the federal government to balance its budget.

Like most of his unfinished priorities, these two have almost no chance of winning the approval in the 100th Congress.

The Democrats, controlling both houses of Congress, will press ahead with ambitious plans to pass legislation toughening United States trade laws and overhauling the welfare system. Reagan has threatened to veto both bills if they get to his desk with provisions he finds unacceptable.

Add to this mix the combustible element of election-year politics. Democrats will seek to preserve their bicameral majorities while they attempt to place one of their own in the Oval Office. Republicans will oppose Democratic legislative initiatives with redoubled fervor. At the same time, President Reagan will use his bully pulpit to champion the policies that he has been unable to implement during his seven years in office.

``The election complicates things,'' says Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas.

With regard to domestic issues, lawmakers of both parties expect 1988 to be a year of little significant accomplishment. This fact seemed to be underscored by the atmosphere in the House chamber during Reagan's eighth and final State of the Union message. His rhetoric echoed themes from last year's speech. Last year, however, Reagan's call for a balanced budget amendment provoked hoots and catcalls from Democrats. Monday evening, similar words elicited no response.

``Reagan's got less than a year left. Why get upset?'' says House Majority Whip Tony Coelho (D) of California. ``He's not a factor.''

Most lawmakers are less inclined to so readily count Reagan out. With the Iran-contra affair behind him, the President has partially restored his redoubtable public popularity. Having consummated an arms control treaty with the Soviets, he has recovered some measure of prestige among lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

At the same time, the administration is clearly determined not to let itself fade into election-year irrelevance. For example, in his address Monday night the President pledged to make good on his opposition to special ``pork barrel'' projects lawmakers tucked into a pair of catch-all spending and revenue bills last year. He said he would formally ask Congress to remove the items retroactively.

``That's going to embarrass the hell out of some people,'' chortles Rep. Dick Cheney (R) of Wyoming, the House Republican Whip.

In addition, the President retains considerable clout on foreign policy matters, which are certain to constitute the most dramatic accomplishments of the year. On these issues, his administration shows considerable willingness to bargain with the Democratic Congress.

Next week, for instance, Congress will consider the administration's considerably scaled-down request for aid to the Nicaraguan contra rebels.

Originally, in the wake of the euphoria surrounding Lt. Col Oliver North's appearance before the joint Iran-contra committees, the administration suggested it would ask Congress to approve an 18-month, $270 million package. It soon became apparent that the package would have little chance of winning congressional assent.

Yesterday, amid increasing prospects of peace in Central America, the administration said it would request a four-month contra aid package consisting of $32 million in non-lethal assistance and $3.6 million for the replenishment if ammunition and anti-aircraft missiles. The military aid would be held in escrow until March 31, pending a determination by the President that a cease-fire was being observed by the contras and Nicaragua's Sandinista government.

One of the most dramatic clashes of the year may be precipitated by the trade bill now emerging in Congress. The President has vowed to veto any bill he considers ``protectionist.'' Democrats, sensing the political potency of the trade issue, have vowed to override the President's veto, if necessary. It is not at all clear, however, that Democratic leaders will be able to deliver on their vows. Meanwhile, administration officials have been working behind the scenes to see that Congress passes a bill Reagan can accept.

The President may realize the most dramatic triumph of his presidency on the arms control front. In the spring, the Senate is expected to approve the US-Soviet treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear weapons. Administration official hope to follow that up with a deal to reduce the superpowers' long-range strategic arsenals by half.

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