Congress Sweats the Small Stuff in '98

Lawmakers are back in session today, with nuts-and-bolts issues at top of their agenda.

Congress returns to Washington today with its plate full of issues but little appetite.

Lawmakers this year will deal with the essential matters of keeping the government running, say congressional leaders and outside observers. But the election year, a short schedule, a still-tight budget, and a presidential scandal will make it hard to enact broad new initiatives, however much one side or the other desires them.

Among the chosen few issues that will see action are a highway-spending bill, reform of the Internal Revenue Service, a small tax cut, and perhaps some additional education spending.

"We need to recognize it is an election year. It will make some of the things we want to do harder," says Senate majority leader Trent Lott. "We need to focus on a few big issues."

Senator Lott's priorities include the highway-spending bill, bogged down in a fight between states over who gets how much money; reform of the 1935 law regulating public utilities to allow more competition in the electricity industry; health-care issues; K-through-12 education; laws to fight crime and drugs; and tax issues, including reform of the Internal Revenue Service and additional tax cuts.

Lott also points to several foreign-affairs issues that Congress will face this year, including expanding NATO; restoring the president's "fast track" trade-negotiating authority; additional funding for the International Monetary Fund; and whether to fund a prolonged stay by US troops in Bosnia.

President Clinton and congressional Democrats have their own list of priorities, of course. The president wants to allow certain 55- to 65-year-olds to join Medicare; provide tax credits for parents who pay for child care; and expand federal aid to rebuild schools. Many Democrats, led by Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and House minority whip David Bonior of Michigan, will also push for an increase in the minimum wage. Republicans are likely to counter with a bill to allow workers to get comp time instead of overtime pay.

Tobacco redux

Also looming before Congress is the sweeping tobacco settlement between cigarette companies and most of the states. Several of its provisions, including advertising restrictions, taxes, and liability immunity, require congressional action. But leaders in both parties doubt Congress and the White House can reach a consensus on the proposal.

"It's going to be very difficult to get the tobacco deal done," acknowledges Representative Bonior. Lott gives any deal only a 30 percent chance of passage.

A lot of other proposals may meet the same end, as too many issues clamor for too little time. "There are very few legislative days, compared to previous years," notes Stan Collender, a federal-budget expert at Burson-Marsteller. Now that the budget and spending bills are passed, he says, "It's not clear that anybody knows what they want to do or that they can get it together in a very short period of time." Congress has fewer than 100 legislative days between now and Oct. 9, when legislators hope to return home to campaign for reelection.

"I don't see a lot of legislative action likely to occur," says Sarah Binder, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank in Washington. "Largely, that's shaped by election-year dynamics. There's a large incentive not to take on anything too risky, yet pursue things that you can claim credit for at home.... By and large, I see it as a year of jockeying between Republicans and Democrats."

Still, Lott maintains that Republicans are willing to work with the president. "We're not looking for an opportunity to butt heads."

Ms. Binder predicts the two sides will agree on IRS reform. The president has endorsed a bill that has passed the House and is awaiting Senate action.

Some kind of education legislation also seems likely. The two sides have competing proposals and disagree mightily over whether parents should receive government funds or tax benefits to pay for their children to attend private and religious schools. But Lott says he sees some room for compromise on issues such as charter schools, which both sides support in principle, and education savings accounts that would allow parents to save money each year and use the gains tax-free to pay for K-through-12 education expenses. Democrats emphasize the need for federal aid to school districts to rebuild and repair crumbling school buildings.

Both houses are committed to a vote this spring on campaign-finance reform. But the issue has been stalemated for several years now, and a compromise does not appear in the offing.

Lott also says he wants to spend more time on congressional oversight of federal government agencies. Senate Republicans will soon release a schedule of hearings.

Redoing entitlements?

The question of how to save Medicare and Social Security during the next century will also loom large. A bipartisan commission will take up Medicare, but neither party will be eager to press for legislative solutions during an election year unless a broad consensus emerges - which does not now seem likely.

Complicating everything now is the scandal swirling around Mr. Clinton, who is accused of having a sexual relationship with a White House intern, lying about it under oath, and urging her to do so as well. Many worry that a president and staff consumed by the scandal will not have time to focus on governing the country, dealing with Congress, and handling foreign crises.

Lott says the president has shown he could work on other problems while dealing with distractions, and he hopes Clinton can do it again. Meanwhile, "We should go forward with the business of the country."

Top Issues For Congress This Year

Action likely

* Highway spending

Congress will likely dole out billions for highway and transit improvements, if it can agree which states get how much money.

* IRS reform

A bill would rein in powers of the Internal Revenue Service and make the agency more customer-service oriented.

* Tax cut

Most likely is a reduction in the "marriage penalty," in which people pay more tax because they are married than they would if single.

* Education

Parties may reach common ground on support for charter schools and for introducing education savings accounts. Sticking points are public aid for private schooling and money to repair crumbling schools.

Action unlikely

* Tobacco deal

There's intense opposition to a $368.5 billion settlement reached by the tobacco firms and the states. Congress probably won't have enough time this session to work out the many complex issues such legislation would entail.

* Campaign-finance reform

The stalemate continues with no break in sight.

* Medicare and Social Security

In an election year, it's just about impossible to get anywhere on the politically volatile issue of reforming these entitlement programs.

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