Congress Has Much Work in Final Weeks

Both parties want to pass bills, protect reputations in weird year - a letter from Washington

ONE thing Democrats on Capitol Hill tend to agree on with President Bush these days is this: Politics this year are "weird."

The last scheduled days of the 102nd Congress are in the next three weeks. On Wednesday, the brief fall session started full of ambivalence, practical legislative purpose, and obvious partisan maneuvers.

Congress is eager to improve its dismal state of repute by passing important laws, demonstrating how responsibly and effectively it can accomplish its business.

Now close your civics book.

Members also want to pass laws with statesmanlike accord because they really, really want to finish and go home Oct. 3, the scheduled closing day of the session. They have serious campaigning to do in that last month before the election.

This want-to-go-home factor actually gives Bush an advantage in negotiating the key money bills in coming weeks. Congress must pass them before it can adjourn and members can leave.

Yet the president stays in Washington anyway; that is, he campaigns most days of the week from a Washington base. So it makes no practical difference to him when the bills are passed.

Bush may even demonstrate his commitment to keeping government small by vetoing one of the appropriations bills, perhaps the one with Congress's own expenses in it. This is an in-your-face move that would particularly gall Democrats, who point out that each of the 13 appropriations bills covering all government spending total less than what Bush requested.

Democrats are in the president's way, in turn, with the family-leave bill, which would require medium and large companies to grant employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave upon the birth or adoption of a child. Bush has vetoed the bill before, and is likely to do it again.

The bill probably will not become law this session. But after the family-values pieties of the Republican convention, Democrats cannot resist passing their own version of a bill supporting parenthood, and forcing Bush to veto a popular bill again.

House and Senate members in both parties are legislating with one eye on the presidential race.

Republicans are jumpy. As Bush's fortunes have fallen in the polls, the popularity of Republican candidates appears to have fallen as well. Most House candidates, however, are just beginning to do polling in the field.

Democrats are in a state of amazed grace. For the first time in 16 years, their presidential ticket looks as though it might win the White House. Months of Congress-bashing by the president have not stemmed the rise of Democratic prospects.

On Tuesday night, before the session opened, Bush invited a handful of ranking members over for a visit in the family quarters of the White House. The tone was surprisingly friendly and statesmanlike for a man who has made a mission of bashing Congress for perks, privilege, and partisanship. They talked of the nation's business and important bills they could agree on.

The next morning, Bush invited only Republican leaders over. He talked tough, accusing the Democrats on Capitol Hill of playing politics with "almost everything."

Each side has motives for not letting partisanship get out of hand. Congress needs to show it can get things done. When Bush or congressional Democrats bring home the issue of government gridlock too sharply, blaming the opposition, the image of all incumbents plummets.

Bush, for his part, wants Congress's approval on some bills that are not especially popular, keeping fuss over them to a minimum. These include bills aiding the people of the former Soviet Union, giving more money to bail out savings-and-loan depositors, and possibly raising the national debt limit again.

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