In Reform of Congress, Senate Leads, House Lags

Senators agree on sweeping changes to address growing public discontent, but House Democrats remain wary

EFFORTS to reform Congress are in a race with the calendar.

Senate lawmakers, facing a year-end deadline, will tomorrow begin markup of a bill that could result in the most important changes on Capitol Hill since 1946. But key House Democrats may still derail the plan.

Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma, a reform champion, says if the proposals are to be adopted, Americans must barrage House and Senate members with their support. ``Here is a chance for the American people to get behind something positive, not just to express frustration with Congress.''

Rep. David Dreier (R) of California, a co-chairman of the bipartisan Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, shows dismay that the House resists reform. ``Despite bipartisan support for ... increased accountability, the [House] Democratic leadership has allowed a vocal few in their caucus to sabotage the joint committee's work,'' he says.

In the Senate, a bipartisan group led by Mr. Boren and Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico has crafted proposals that may answer many complaints about the way things work on Capitol Hill. Some are historic and potentially controversial, such as putting limits on the Senate filibuster. But reform leaders are confident there will be majority Senate support. The body could even reform some of its procedures, even without House cooperation.

Among the plan's points:

* Staff cuts. Congress employs some 38,500. The plan would cut that by 12 percent.

* Ethics reform. Citizens, including former senators, would act as a ``grand jury'' to probe possible wrongdoing by members. The final decision would remain in the House or Senate.

* Application of law. Congress would be brought under the federal laws that apply to the private sector, including those on civil rights, employment, and safety.

* Committee reform. Senators, who serve on up to 20 committees and subcommittees, would be limited to three committees and five subcommittees. Under the proposals, three or four Senate committees would be eliminated, four House-Senate joint committees, and 34 Senate subcommittees.

* Budget reform. Congress would approve budgets every two years, rather than annually. The second year of a congressional session would be used for oversight and investigation of federal programs.

* Filibuster. One senator, by refusing to yield the floor, can block Senate consideration of a bill. The plan would remove the privilege, but one or more senators could filibuster once a bill reached the floor.

Efforts to reform Congress got a big impetus in 1992 when lawmakers created the joint committee - including equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats from House and Senate - to seek ways to improve efficiency and accountability. In the first half of 1993, it held 36 hearings with 243 witnesses and discussed more than 500 reform proposals.

The committee's powers expire, however, on Dec. 31. With so little time remaining, Boren and Mr. Domenici felt they could wait no longer to introduce their bill after their House colleagues failed to agree on a package.

House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington promises that reform won't falter, insisting that his members are only days behind the Senate. But the House's lag could be embarrassing to Democrats. Senate Democrats and Republicans, with House Republicans, are charging ahead while House Democrats debate.

Dreier, after hailing the Senate's bipartisan plan, said the slow pace in the House gave Boren and Domenici no choice but to push ahead.

Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, a co-chairman of the reform committee with Dreier, Boren, and Domenici, met with House Democratic Caucus members last week to push things along. He insists a reform package will be ready in the House within two weeks. Republicans are skeptical, however. If House Democratic proposals are watered down, they are ready with up to 50 strengthening amendments.

Democrats also express impatience. Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada says: ``Some will be reluctant to give up committees or staff. But the integrity of this institution must prevail over personal agendas.''

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