Congress Strives To Make Over Its 'Do Nothing' Face

IT'S springtime in Washington. The daffodils are up, the cherry trees are blooming - and the GOP Congress is moving legislation as fast as Sen. Bob Dole can pound his gavel and say "next."

Last week the House and Senate passed a host of big bills, including a landmark farm measure, product liability reform, a line-item veto, and a much-delayed increase in the nation's debt ceiling. When members return from their Easter recess more heavy work will confront them, including votes on immigration reform and, possibly, welfare and Medicaid overhauls.

If nothing else, all this action may make it harder for President Clinton to run against a "do nothing" Congress in the fall. That's what Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said last week at a Republican pep rally, anyway. "If you look at the recent track record, this may well be one of the most productive months in the history of Congress," he claimed.

Democrats retort that a spurt of energy does not a long-term record make, and that such big issues as an overall budget deal remain unresolved. In the Senate so far this year "we've met and voted only 14 days," said minority leader Sen. Thomas Daschle (D) of South Dakota. "The do nothing Congress is here."

This argument will likely get louder as the election approaches. The Republicans and their standard-bearer, Senate majority leader Dole, will try to emphasize legislative productivity and accomplishment. Democrats and President Clinton may charge that much of the work accomplished was "extremist" - witness the House vote on repealing a ban on assault rifles.

Listening to the political noise, it's easy to overlook the actual legislation, which now is, or will soon become, the law of the land. Among the legislation approved last week:

*Farm bill. Landmark legislation passed last week aims to wean many American farmers away from government subsidies and toward greater reliance on the free market. Clinton "reluctantly" backed the bill - which also frees farmers from federal controls on what they grow - because spring planting is at hand. Democrats could challenge this reform in years ahead, however, if they gain in legislative strength or retake control of Congress.

*Debt ceiling. Normally, members of Congress quietly vote to raise the nation's debt ceiling every year as needed. This time around, GOP firebrands tried to use the debt-ceiling vote as a lever to pry budget concessions out of the White House. With Republicans receiving much of the blame for recent government shutdowns, this tactic didn't work.

But when debt ceiling legislation finally passed last week, Republicans did attach two substantive changes with which Clinton agreed. One would increase the amount of money Social Security recipients are allowed to earn before their benefits begin to be reduced. The other would make it easier for small businesses to challenge federal regulations in court.

*Line-item veto. Legislation allowing presidents to strike individual items without having to veto an entire appropriations bill was one of the primary planks of the GOP's Contract With America. Last week it finally passed - with Clinton's support. But the line-item veto is sure to be challenged in court, as critics claim it is an unconstitutional transfer of government power.

These measures come on top of another major legislative accomplishment - a telecommunications bill that promises huge changes in the types of TV and telephone service available.

But not every bill Congress has made progress on faces a clear road to final passage. Take health insurance: Last week, the House passed a big bill intended to make it easier for Americans to keep their health insurance if they change jobs or become ill. It's a modest reform that Clinton supports. But the House bill also includes provisions that limit medical malpractice awards and establish tax-exempt "medical savings accounts" for routine health costs. These "extraneous" provisions ensure that the House bill won't pass in the Senate, and in any case would be vetoed by the White House, Daschle said last week.

Legislation limiting damage awards in product liability cases also faces an almost certain scribble of the veto pen. So does a just-passed bill to fund the State Department and other US foreign affairs operations.

And the overall budget struggle remains good for partisan fireworks. Last week, just before leaving town for two weeks, Congress approved a 12th short-term spending resolution intended to avert another government shutdown. The battle will begin anew when members return April 15. "It increasingly looks like this fiscal year might be over before they get around to funding it," said White House spokesman Mike McCurry.

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