Political Jockeying, Budget Deficit Fog Congress's Agenda

JUST a few weeks after the Los Angeles riots, what has become of the nation's "urban agenda"?

The short answer is that, after an initial burst of bipartisan unity, it has entered the Washington nether world of back-room caucusing, White House-Congress negotiating, and House-Senate conferencing.

Even the emergency supplemental appropriations bill, designed to provide quick money for Los Angeles's riot-torn neighborhoods and Chicago's flood-damaged areas, is moving along at a measured pace at best. The Senate is off this week, but House and Senate conferees will sit down next week to iron out the substantial differences in the bills they passed. But there is likely to be little surprise at the end of the decisionmaking process for both short- and long-term measures, because of two unavoidable and

powerful factors, say urban-policy analysts.

"One, it's an election year; and, two, the budget deficit," says Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. "They are driving the process toward doing something symbolic that looks as if one cares and by definition can't cost much money."

"Another way to look at it is, if you put forward an expensive package it will probably go nowhere, because the president won't break the budget agreement," says Ms. Sawhill. Such a maneuver would wind up being a free way for a member of Congress to show concern for urban America, Sawhill says, though she's reluctant to ascribe such an approach to pure political cynicism.

In this campaign season, Democratic lawmakers and President Bush are fighting two competing impulses: to score partisan points by stymying the other's plans, and to enact legislation in a timely manner to show the disillusioned electorate that Washington is capable of action.

Though judgments on timeliness are subjective, Congress does seem capable of some bipartisan agreement, at least on short-term aid. When the Senate passed an emergency spending bill several times as large as what the House had passed a week earlier - $1.95 billion vs. $495 million - it did so with some notable Republican support. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah strongly backed the extra spending, aimed at early-childhood education, summer jobs, and other social programs. So did Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon,

ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Early readings are that the White House is willing to give a bit on the size of the emergency package. "My visceral reaction is that the administration hasn't used the sort of language it has in the past when it's going to veto something," says an aide to Speaker of the House Thomas Foley (D) of Washington.

One area where the White House might be willing to give a little on emergency spending - i.e., spending that will be added to the budget deficit - is on summer jobs, suggest House Democratic observers. But, with school nearly out, it loses its significance if the legislation isn't enacted soon.

As for the longer-term urban agenda, Mr. Bush and his foot soldiers are sticking to the White House's announced six-point plan, including "enterprise zones" for inner cities, a program to help tenants buy their housing, and a plan to "weed" out criminals and "seed" neighborhoods with social programs.

In a pre-California primary campaign stop, Bush will be in Los Angeles on Friday to highlight his urban agenda. He will meet with the presidential task force set up to help South-Central L.A. and will visit a disaster-assistance center.

Congressional Democrats are still working out their own agenda, through extensive caucusing among black and Hispanic members and the House leadership.

But with the final months of the 102nd Congress winding down, some observers see impetus waning for action on a long-term plan.

For both parties, the reasoning goes, the climate for pushing each respective agenda may be more hospitable under the next administration and the next congress.

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