Week 2 -- Now the Going Gets Tougher in Congress

GOP promise to pass budget amendment could trigger furor over taxes, spending

THE Republican 104th Congress, which launched itself with amity and back-patting, now begins the hard part.

As Week 2 gets underway, fault lines are showing up along the two traditional great divides between Republicans and Democrats -- taxes and spending.

While the newly energized House under Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia embraced a plethora of bipartisan reforms last week, the period of cooperation is expected to be short.

The crunch will come as the GOP starts trying to fulfill its promise to downsize the federal government in Washington and shift power back to states and localities. Gingrich & Co. will lead this effort with claims that they represent America's ''forgotten'' middle-class taxpayers, while Democrats, also claiming a middle-class mandate, try to stop it.

Battle No. 1 will involve the balanced-budget amendment, which may eventually force Congress to trim everything from defense to Social Security.

Republicans are pursuing their agenda with the speed of wide receivers, but Democrats, in control for 40 years, are learning how to play defense. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House is pacing the sidelines, calling out plays like a benched starting quarterback.

Although swift legislative action is exactly what the Republicans promised, the frenzy is unsettling for some observers.

''The Republicans think they have a mandate, but they should be careful not to pass things too quickly,'' says Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside. House Republicans have promised to bring 10 major bills, outlined in their ''Contract With America,'' including the amendment, to a floor vote in the first 100 days.

Former GOP Congressman Mickey Edwards, who now teaches at Harvard University, pooh-poohs such concerns, however. ''Republicans made a commitment to deal with these issues quickly, and there is no reason for them not to.'' Nobody complains, he says, when Democrats try to raise taxes and spending at the same time.

Known for slow-paced deliberation, Congress put its reputation aside last week and lawmakers turned campaign promises into legislative action with several key reforms.

The early amity ''wasn't all empty rhetoric, like breakfast cereal shot from guns,'' says Stephen Hess, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution.

''The president and the Republican majority in Congress have shown enough realism that the people want something to be done. But that will run out quickly.''

The first bill scheduled for a vote in the House is the balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. Although this issue may have the most profound and disputed consequences of all the Contract items, it is expected to pass easily. The Senate is also considering its own versions of the legislation.

As Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina pointed out last week in opening hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Congress has debated balanced-budget provisions in one form or another since the 1930s. In a time when fiscal discipline in the legislature seems elusive, 80 percent of Americans now support an amendment, as do most lawmakers.

But as the issue moves through committee in the next two weeks, Democrats will use it to call into question the economic viability of the House Contract. The White House has challenged the GOP to provide a detailed explanation of how it would balance the budget by 2002, as it has promised. The Contract stipulates some $200 billion in unspecified tax cuts.

Speaker Gingrich ignited fierce debate last Thursday when he suggested before the House Ways and Means Committee, which handles all tax issues, that Medicare should be overhauled. Democrats took that as evidence that the Republicans intend to go after other sacred-cow entitlements, such as Social Security.

House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. John Kasich (R) of Ohio says Republicans plan to review every government program for cuts, including Pentagon spending, even though the Contract calls for increased military budgeting.

As for the debate over the balanced-budget amendment itself, the arguments are decidedly less cantankerous. Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware argues that a constitutional amendment would pave the way for a shift in the balance of powers, giving the US Supreme Court jurisdiction over budget decisions whenever the legislature failed to zero-out revenues and expenditures. But he has vowed to support the legislation provided its language protects against court intervention.

Alice Rivlin, director of the Office of Management and Budget, nonetheless warns against the legislation. Balancing the budget may not be appropriate in every condition, she argued, noting the value of running deficits during recessions. Further, she points out, the administration is on the road toward cutting the national debt by $700 billion by 1998 without an amendment.

None of these arguments is likely to slow the legislation, which House Republicans hope to bring to floor vote on Jan. 19.

''The balanced-budget amendment is a stimulating intellectual dispute, but it is not nearly as emotional as welfare reform,'' says John Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.

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