Capital's `Course Load'

TO a Congress returning from its August recess, the lineup of issues it faces may look as daunting as the list of reading assignments and projects handed the new class.

The president and Vice President Al Gore Jr. have just set out their plan for ``reinventing government.'' Although as much as 45 percent of the plan can be implemented without congressional approval, Congress would need to sign off on some provisions. Lawmakers also face what promises to be a difficult fight over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Later this month, the president will unveil health-care reform proposals. Meanwhile, the Senate will be taking up the president's national-service plan, and Congress as a whole still must deal with campaign-finance reform, immigration reform, welfare reform, and anticrime legislation.

The range of issues presents opportunities as well as political dangers for the president and Congress.

As for opportunities, the president's Inauguration Day desire that both parties work together to solve the nation's problems stands a better chance of fulfillment on issues such as NAFTA, health care, and reforming government operations than it did on the budget. Politically, many of these fall issues also better position the president to appear more like his campaign's ``new Democrat'' than the spring's ``tax and spend'' liberal.

The danger lies in the appearance of overload, first fostered during the spring when the president wanted to present his stimulus package, deficit-reduction package, and health-care reform all before summer. That was overload: Health care and the budget both represented comprehensive changes in policy ranging across the government. The president wisely took the counsel of top Democrats in Congress and held off on health care until the fall.

The latest round of issues contains less overlap and more open-ended time frames. Some analysts anticipate, for example, that health-care reform could take at least nine months to move through Congress. One can't expect everything else to come to a halt until that issue is settled. But the overload perception persists.

Clearly the president must set priorities. But to sustain momentum on the range of fall issues, he also must keep public attention focused on whatever broader vision ties the elements together. Without a larger vision, much of what he and the Congress would like to accomplish will dissolve into disparateness.

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