Congress finishing its work with unusual harmony

With lawmakers casting an anxious eye toward reelection campaigns back home, the 100th Congress is lumbering toward a characteristically tardy conclusion. But an uncharacteristically peaceful one. ``Kind of makes you nostalgic for the bad old days, doesn't it?'' jests Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming.

Gone, for example, are the end-of-the-fiscal-year histrionics over federal spending. In past years, federal workers were sent home as Congress and the White House haggled over the contents of the notorious continuing resolution - a legislative behemoth into which had been folded as many as 13 separate spending bills to keep the federal government in business. Not since 1976 had Congress completed all the bills needed to finance the government before the fiscal year began.

This year those 13 bills were passed separately - the last at 11:57 p.m. on Sept. 30, three minutes before the start of the new fiscal year.

Gone, too, is the annual, year-end scramble to meet the deficit-reduction targets set out by the Gramm-Rudman balanced budget act. In the past, lawmakers and administration officials were at each others' throats as they tried to tamp the deficit below the ceiling Gramm-Rudman had set for the year. Failing a compromise on nettlesome tax and spending matters, they faced the unwelcome prospect of automatic cuts in hundreds of federal programs.

This year, they have experienced few such worries. Democrats and Republicans had already hammered out a budget agreement last fall that was supposed to bring the deficit within the $146 billion target for the fiscal year 1988. A year of uncommon bipartisan budget harmony was capped Friday with a White House budget office announcement that, indeed, the deficit for the year would weigh in at just under $145.5 billion.

As expected as that announcement was, it brought a sigh of relief on Capitol Hill. Had the automatic cuts been triggered, federal spending for defense and domestic programs would have been slashed by at least $10 billion - small change in a federal budget that totals $1.1 trillion, perhaps, but an amount that would have brought political pain to lawmakers nevertheless. ``Lots of people were disposed to avoid that,'' says Senate Budget Committee chairman Lawton Chiles (D) of Florida.

Why the tranquillity? Lawmakers attribute it partly to last year's budget summit between congressional leaders and White House officials, which established a standard for cooperation between the two branches. Some members, particularly Democrats, also credit the calm to the dominance of one party in both houses. ``It's simply more efficient that way,'' asserts Rep. Tony Coelho (D) of California, the House majority whip.

Election year concerns, too, have played a part, pressuring lawmakers to come to terms with each other on many contentious issues, or face the prospect of embarrassing themselves at home.

A campaign-year drug bill, for example, was tangled for weeks in a debate over whether drug traffickers who kill ought to be subjected to the death penalty. Finally, on Friday, the Senate passed a two-year, $2.6 billion measure that would stiffen drug penalties, enhance drug education and rehabilitation programs - and permit, though not require, the death penalty for murders committed in the course of a ``continuing criminal drug enterprise.''

The bill will be considered this week by the House, which passed a considerably tougher drug bill last month. The House is expected, however, to accept legislation close to that passed by the Senate. ``These guys want to go home, and now,'' says one senior House Democratic aide. ``They're not going to dare to go home without the drug bill in their hands.''

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