Congress's Fall Colored by Crisis In Soviet Union

Democrats likely to push for jobless benefits, health care, and tax relief for the middle class

IN a rerun of last year, an event of enormous global significance will have a profound impact on Capitol Hill debate when Congress reopens for business this week.Last year, it was Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. This year, it's the fall of Soviet communism and that country's transformation. Suddenly, an agenda packed with issues such as banking, crime, highways, civil rights, and abortion has been topped off with a matter already embroiled in debate: how much aid to send the former Soviet Union and where to get the money. Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wants to take $1 billion out of the Pentagon's $291 billion budget for humanitarian aid. House majority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri proposes a $3 billion long-term program to aid economic restructuring. A more-cautious Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, suggests $15 million to $20 million for the Soviet republics in the next appropriations bill. But whatever the dollar amount, a consensus is emerging that the United States has a moral obligation to help prevent possible starvation in a country that has at last cast off its communist shackles, the decades-long goal of US foreign policy. Some Democrats see the inevitability of a US aid package for the Soviets as a boon to US domestic problems they have had a hard time funding, such as extending jobless benefits. President Bush signed legislation last month to prolong benefits, but refused to carry it out, saying it would hurt economic recovery. With unemployment holding at 6.8 percent in August, the Democrats have been emboldened to press their case. "There's no way Bush can do Soviet aid and not do unemployment," says an aide to a senior House Democrat. "The biggest beneficiaries of the [Soviet] coup will be America's long-term unemployed." The Soviet aid question could lead to more funding for anti-crime legislation and education, adds the aide. "The coup and countercoup will color everything we do this fall," he says.

The budget accord Some congressmen have expressed concern that aid to the Soviets could bust the budget agreement reached last October between Congress and the White House. Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, a leading member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warns that with the budget deficit nearing $300 billion, Congress must preserve the budget deal, which imposes caps on spending for defense, foreign, and domestic programs. But other senators, such as John Danforth (R) of Missouri and Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey, argue that the budget agreement is already out of date and needs revising. The demise of Soviet communism has decreased the Soviet threat, they contend, and thus the US must now rethink defense spending. Even before the Soviet upheaval, Congress faced a full agenda this fall, not only with a raft of appropriations bills and other legislation but also some key confirmation hearings: Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, whose Senate Judiciary Committee hearing begins tomorrow and is expected to last two weeks; and Robert Gates, nominee for director of central intelligence, whose hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee is to begin Sept. 16. "This will be a busier fall, and a more interesting fall, than there has been in some time," says James Glassman, editor of Roll Call, a newspaper that specializes in covering Congress. "There will also be more political combat than we've seen in some time."

Three key issues The Democrats had hoped to lay the foundation of their message for the coming presidential campaign by pushing the theme of America's squeezed middle class. Democrats are expected to press three issues in particular: unemployment, guaranteed access to health care, and tax relief for the middle class. "We'll be hitting on those three every day," says a Democratic strategist in Congress. But with foreign events - Bush's strong suit - dominating the news again, the Democrats will have to struggle to keep these issues out front. Meanwhile, major legislation awaits completion before the Thanksgiving recess, including: * Banking reform. The banking industry, still laboring under Depression-era regulations, needs new rules to make it more competitive and in many cases solvent, say advocates of reform. Congress must also replenish the insurance fund that protects investors, which will be out of money by the end of the year. In a separate matter, the Resolution Trust Corporation, the federal agency charged with bailing out the nation's savings-and-loan industry, must also be refunded to the tune of some $70 billion. * Abortion. Congress must act immediately if it is to overturn administration rules forbidding discussion of abortion in federally funded family-planning clinics. Pro-choice House Democrats are divided over whether the House can muster a veto-proof two-thirds majority on the issue. The Senate appears to be close to two-thirds but not quite there. All sides hope the administration and Congress can agree on a compromise, but so far attempts at finding one have proved futile. * Civil rights. Legislation would make it easier for workers discriminated against to get larger financial awards and would undo Supreme Court decisions that have made it harder for workers to sue their superiors. The White House and Congress are at odds over job quotas; the Thomas nomination hearings are likely to quicken the debate on this matter.

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