UNDER a glistening Paul Revere crystal chandelier in a little-known Capitol Hill room, Reps. Olympia Snowe and Pat Schroeder politely fire the opening salvo in this year's child-care battle. ``Child care is on the top of our agenda,'' says Representative Snowe, a Maine Republican.
``We're so far behind every country'' in the industrialized world on child care and other family issues, laments Representative Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat. Women in and out of Congress ``are growing impatient.''
Child care is the visible tip of the social-issues iceberg now floating around Capitol Hill. Just below the surface are family leave, still-rising health-care costs, medical insurance for an estimated 37 million uninsured, long-term health care, education, crack babies, age discrimination in employment, pension-fund oversight, and improvements in the supplemental Social Security income fund.
All these issues will be discussed - health issues in exhausting detail. But Congress is unlikely to approve significant legislation on most of them this year except for family leave, and even that is problematic.
Only child care has the political buoyancy to thrust its way upward onto Congress's legislative calendar for the early part of this year. The House of Representatives ``will pass a child-care bill by the end of March,'' insists House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington.
The Senate, which approved a child-care proposal last year, ``will revisit'' the issue in 1990, says Senate minority whip Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming. ``That must be done.''
On and off Capitol Hill some politically savvy observers think Congress this year will finally approve a child-care bill that President Bush will sign into law.
A principal reason: Politics.
Child care is ``an extremely popular issue,'' says John Chubb of the Brookings Institution. Both Republicans and Democrats ``would like to go into the election [this fall] being able to trumpet their efforts on this issue.''
Last year House members could not decide which of two disparate child-care proposals to support, so they approved both, and left the final choice to a Senate-House conference committee.
No agreement in sight
One proposal would provide grants to states as entitlements that do not require annual congressional approval. This proposal is favored by Rep. Thomas Downey (D) of New York, whose Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources would have jurisdiction of this bill.
The other would provide more money subject to annual appropriations. This plan is supported by retiring Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D) of California, whose Education and Labor Committee would have charge of this bill.
This year the two sides have to start all over again in the House and pass another proposal, but no agreement is in sight. ``A compromise will have to emerge, so someone will have to yield,'' says a congressional source. ``But at this point no one's yielded yet.''
``We have a very sharp division between some members of the Education and Labor Committee and members of the Ways and Means Committee,'' says Speaker Foley. If he can't resolve it amicably, ``there may be some need to just settle it ... on the floor,'' he says.
Part of the problem is honest differences over policy: how big tax credits should be, how to finance the program, what kinds of standards should be set, how much money Uncle Sam should spend, whether the church-state issue has really been resolved in cases of church-run child care.
But beyond these sticking points, ``It really does get down to a lot of political egos around here,'' Snowe says in a view with which many agree. She adds that ``if [Sens.] Chris Dodd [(D) of Connecticut] and Orrin Hatch [(R) of Utah] could resolve their differences'' and agree on a compromise bill, as they did last year, so can disputatious House members.
Schroeder says there is another hurdle to getting child-care legislation passed: It's not a power issue: ``Toddlers don't vote. Toddlers don't have golf tournaments. These issues are viewed by national political leaders as `nice' issues, but not power issues'' that require action.
``After the 1988 election the one thing you'd think would pass would be child care,'' Schroeder says - but it didn't. It had similarly failed to pass immediately before the 1988 election.
It may not pass this year either, says Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, unless House members move to a more modest proposal than the Senate bill. To gain broad House approval and a presidential signature such a proposal would have to provide better targeting of child-care funds to the poor than the Senate bill, and allow more flexible child-care arrangements.
Mr. Besharov pointedly notes that Speaker Foley has not put his personal prestige behind the more expensive Senate-approved measure. On Capitol Hill support for the Senate's proposal ``is wide but shallow,'' Besharov says. But majority backing does exist for some kind of child-care legislation, provided the specifics can be agreed upon, he adds.
Months ago broad backing similarly appeared to exist for the concept of requiring that sizable American businesses give employees leave without pay to care for and ``bond'' with newborn or newly adopted children, and to care for parents or other relatives who were ill.
But much of that support has melted: ``There is serious controversy about this program,'' Foley says.
The issue ``is an easy sell to the public,'' Mr. Chubb says. ``The problem is employer groups,'' which have vigorously opposed it.
Parental leave controversy
``Whenever you've got a diffuse public fighting against an intense special interest,'' Chubb says, ``the special interest is going to win unless something happens to energize the public. That something has happened in day care, but not in parental leave.'' That is why he forecasts that Congress this year will not approve parental leave.
Foley insists that the House, at least, will pass it, but that he will wait for a consensus to build in its support before he brings the issue to the House floor. ``I want it to come to the floor in circumstances where it can pass,'' he adds.
Businesses are concerned that unpaid leave is only the first step toward nationally mandated paid leave for family reasons, Besharov notes. The current unpaid leave proposal, he says, is discriminatory: ``Its benefits are biased toward upper income folks. It does not help lower income folks,'' because they cannot afford to take months or weeks off from work without pay.