Congress Convenes to Tackle The Voters' Top Priority: Jobs

THE newly elected 103rd Congress, sporting nearly 120 freshmen members, convenes tomorrow for what could be a history-making session that touches the lives of every American.

Capitol Hill expects to get proposals this year from soon-to-be-President Clinton on health care, education, job-training, the federal deficit, and emergency measures to prime the economy.

"This is arguably the most important Congress since 1965," when President Johnson pushed through landmark civil rights legislation, says an aide to House majority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri.

It will also be the most diverse Congress in history, with record numbers of blacks, Hispanics, and women, including six women in the Senate.

This Congress, like the president-elect, got its marching orders straight from the voters: Jobs must be the nation's top priority in the year ahead. With that in mind, Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill anticipate that four areas will top the agenda for Congress and the White House:

* Short-term economics. Mr. Clinton must decide how many billions of dollars of extra funds for roads, bridges, and other government projects he would like to spend to jump-start the slow-moving economy. Estimates range from $20 billion to $40 billion.

* Long-term economics. In the first half of 1993, Clinton will try to find the right mix of spending on education, training, infrastructure, research, development, and other programs to create millions of new jobs in 1994 and beyond.

* Health-care reform. Even if the economy revives, the nation will eventually go bankrupt, Clinton says, unless health-care costs are controlled and coverage is provided for the 35 million Americans now left uninsured or underinsured.

* Deficit reduction. With the federal budget in the red by $341 billion and with the national debt rapidly rising toward $4.5 trillion, Clinton is under severe pressure to take strong measures, perhaps including tax increases, to bring the books closer to balance. One option: higher taxes on energy, including gasoline.

In addition to that list, analysts say, Congress and Clinton will almost certainly be challenged this year on the foreign-policy front. Where that challenge will come - Eastern Europe, the Mideast, Africa, China - no one can yet say.

Is Congress ready for one of the most active years in memory? Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, says the signs are favorable - at least for the first 12 months.

"Initially it's going to be a very good Congress," Mr. Hess predicts. "You start with a new president with lots of proposals in his basket. And that in itself is terribly important. The president is the motor force in Washington."

Hess also says it is a plus that voters have finally put the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives in the hands of one party. It is no-excuses time for the Democrats. As Representative Gephardt has observed, "If we don't succeed, we're dog meat."

Republicans on Capitol Hill are watching all this with a mixture of anxiety and exhilaration.

Anxiety, because they already detect signs that the Democratic leadership may take a high-handed attitude toward GOP members in the coming session. There was an early move, for example, to restrict the time available for any members to make after-hours speeches - the kind that have become famous on C-SPAN - from the well of the House.

Exhilaration, because for the first time in 12 years, House Republicans have no governing responsibility. They can be a tough-minded, irascible opposition party without concern that they could hurt a Republican president. And there are signs - such as the election of combative Rep. Richard Armey (R) of Texas to a leadership post - that House Republicans are adopting a tough approach toward the ruling Democrats.

Prior to Jan. 20, when Clinton is sworn in, Democrats will focus on getting organized - electing a House Speaker, clerk, and other officers, making adjustments in the committee system, and getting ready for Senate confirmation hearings on Clinton's Cabinet nominees.

One reason for the excitement here is the new makeup of the House and Senate. Both will begin to lose some of their old look - which resembled white male clubhouses - and reflect more of America's diversity.

The number of women will nearly double, from 31 to 54. Hispanics will rise from 14 to 20. Blacks will increase from 26 to 39, including the first black in the Senate in recent years.

BUT it is more than the racial or gender balance of the Congress that fascinates this city. The new members, as well as those who were reelected, survived an angry election, a reckoning with voters who were upset with a weakened economy, crime, and what they perceived as low ethical standards in government.

The 110 new House members and the nine new senators could be the sharpened edge of a sword of change that could champion campaign reform, a line-item veto, and an attack on the mounting federal debt.

A test of the latter could come early, perhaps in March or April. That is when Congress votes on an extension of the federal debt ceiling. Without an extension, the government cannot borrow money and would virtually be forced to shut down. It is a perfect opportunity for budget-cutters in Congress, especially the Republican minority and some new Democrats, to hold Clinton's feet to the fire and demand accountability.

Some experts say they think the debt-ceiling vote may be the moment when everyone gets the first genuine look at how serious Congress and Clinton are about Clinton's promise to halve the budget deficit within four years. Unless he produces a tough plan by that time, one of the pillars of his campaign could begin to crumble.

Meanwhile, Congress is stepping up to the starting line for what many here hope will be a rush of major legislation. As one House aide notes: "We're going to be organized for action from the very moment President Clinton removes his hand from the Bible."

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