GOP Seeks Way To Resuscitate Agenda on Hill

Compromise with Clinton a key option

AS Washington lay dormant last week, Republican leaders retreated to the vaulted rooms of the Library of Congress to talk strategy. Their problem: How to regain the momentum on Capitol Hill.

Chastened by low approval ratings and stymied by presidential vetoes, the Republican leadership is trying to salvage what's left of the legislative session - without boosting the election-year standing of President Clinton.

One option Republicans are looking at is to find a way to compromise with the White House without looking as if they're compromising. The other is to stand firm on major issues until the election and let voters decide which party has the better ideas - and the majority - to resolve them.

Either way, the GOP seems likely to push an agenda that is more modest than its Contract With America.

"I think the revolution now is very much in question," said Texas senator and former presidential candidate Phil Gramm GOP Brass Considers Tactics For Reviving Agenda on Hill

shortly before the Iowa caucuses. "I think without one more election it's not going to happen."

Mr. Gramm represents one GOP faction that discourages reaching a consensus with Democrats, but holds out instead for a Republican president and bigger majorities in Congress. Opponents of this approach dread going home to voters with a "next year will be better" message.

The current strategy, put forth by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is to try to extract "down payments" on the deficit by attaching reforms to stopgap spending bills and debt limit measures. This way, the GOP could squeak in some of its Contract measures, such as welfare reform or the $500 per-child tax credit.

No more shutdowns

Although Republican leaders say they haven't nailed down a strategy, there seems to be little support for forcing another government shutdown or defaulting on federal debt obligations. The public seems to blame Congress for these things.

There's also a time problem. Five appropriations bills remain unsigned, held up for for months by proposals like limiting Medicaid abortions, boosting striker replacement laws, and allowing logging in national forests. And it's already time to start working on the budget for fiscal 1997.

"Congress is in the awkward position of dealing with this year's budget and next year's at the same time," says John Pitney, professor at California's Claremont McKenna College. "The process is even more ragged than usual, and that's pretty ragged."

Then, there's the election. Having spent so much time in session last year, members of Congress had fewer opportunities to explain their positions to voters back home. The longer Congress stays here haggling with President Clinton, the less time members have to campaign.

Once a nominee is chosen, that person is usually given wide latitude in defining the party's agenda. That could be problematic. Two leaders, Pat Buchanan and Lamar Alexander, have rebuked Congress publicly. Mr. Alexander says he wants to cut congressional pay by half and limit sessions to six months a year. Mr. Buchanan has chided Congress for ignoring economic security issues.

If Senate majority leader Bob Dole wins, his campaign could clog the flow of legislation through the Senate. It also might become a referendum on Congress itself, heightening the pressure to produce more results.

About the only weapon left for Congress is public opinion. At a town hall meeting in Georgia Saturday, Mr. Gingrich suggested the nation is "much closer to a recession than economists believe." Gingrich argued that the economy's modest 2.1 percent growth last year reflects the fact that interest rates are too high, a problem that could be solved by locking in a balanced budget.

Era of cooperation

Mr. Clinton, for his part, has agreed on the need for "a bipartisan era of cooperation" to tackle health-care reform, welfare reform, and balance the budget.

Here are some of the items on the agenda in the next few weeks:

*Medicaid and welfare. Bipartisan plans offered by the nation's governors would give states wide flexibility to tailor their own programs. The welfare bill would end federal guarantees of benefits, but would ease work mandates and provide more federal child-care money. Versions of both bills could make it to the floor.

*Regulatory reform. A scaled-down version of a bill that stalled in the Senate. It would include an agency review process, more flexibility for small business, more government review and cost assessment procedures, and a "sun setting" measure - one of the key elements of the Contract.

*Antiterrorism. Proposed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, it enacts stricter penalties and affords federal law enforcement greater power to track down suspected terrorists. An alliance of liberals and ultraconservatives opposes the measure.

*Farm Bill. The House is set for a showdown over this bill, which would phase out federal subsidies while allowing farmers more freedom to plant what they choose. Arguments over initial costs and subsidies loom.

*Immigration. The bill would lower legal immigration, cap refugee admittance, and fight illegal immigration with beefed up border patrols and a national employee database. Sticking points include guest-worker provisions, the database, and limits on family admittance for legal immigrants.

Having spent so much time in session last year, members of Congress had fewer opportunities to explain their positions to voters back home.

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