For Congress, 'do nothing' label may become an asset

First months of 106th Congress are unremarkable, but some say that's the best course for these prosperous times.

So far, it might be dubbed the "invisible" Congress.

Six months into the 106th session, Capitol Hill's lackluster legislative showing is leading both Republicans and Democrats to define their role in new, minimalist terms.

"Republicans on Capitol Hill should take the Hippocratic oath: First do no harm," says Washington-based GOP strategist Ed Gillespie.

Democratic Rep. James Moran of Virginia agrees, saying that the public should be able to safely ignore Congress. "Most of what we do has marginal impact on [people's] lives," he says. "They trust us to do no harm."

Indeed, some Congress-watchers suggest that in an era of national economic prosperity and relative global stability, less may be best on Capitol Hill.

For example, on perhaps the biggest question facing this Congress - whether to cut taxes or increase spending as projected federal-budget surpluses grow - "it may be that doing nothing is better than acting," says Thomas Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution here.

Congressional inaction would mean any surplus would automatically go toward paying down the $5.6 trillion national debt, an option favored by economists and much of the public, polls show.

"Republicans are probably barking up the wrong tree with tax cuts, and the public would much rather see - if the surpluses are really there - the debt paid off," says Bill Frenzel, a former GOP lawmaker now at Brookings.

A hamstrung leadership

In the current Congress, which resumes today after a recess, several factors limit the potential for legislative accomplishment. A weak and divided GOP leadership, ruling with margins of only six seats in the House and 10 in the Senate, is easily stalled by legislative gridlock, experts say.

"The ingredients are not there for any breakthrough, and it would be foolish to expect any," says Mr. Mann.

Meanwhile, President Clinton, determined to shun the "lame duck" image, appears eager to continue working with congressional Democrats to shape the political agenda. "[Clinton] will be in there pitching" until the end of his term, says Mr. Moran.

"If you can use the bully pulpit of the presidency combined with all the inside techniques [of the Democratic minority] in Congress, you have a very strong ability to influence the agenda, or at least prevent the majority from getting anything done," says Norm Ornstein at the American Enterprise Institute here. The GOP leadership, he adds, is "weak, indecisive, and unstrategic."

Adding to this dynamic, many of the big policy issues today - Social Security, health care, education, and gun control - are ones traditionally dominated by Democrats. After taking over Congress in 1994, Republicans focused on bedrock GOP issues such as welfare reform, balancing the budget, and crime control. Now they must tackle concerns that most voters trust Democrats to handle more effectively.

"Republicans have to learn to win in an issue environment that is traditionally favorable to Democrats and hostile to Republicans," says Mr. Gillespie. "That is a challenge for us."

Aided by the president and public opinion, Democrats in Congress have maneuvered in recent weeks to try to force debate on favorite issues such as gun control, campaign finance, and most recently, health-care reform.

For example, Senate Democrats led by minority leader Tom Daschle effectively blocked GOP efforts to debate must-pass spending bills, to force a debate this week on reforming health maintenance organizations (HMOs), or so-called "patients' rights" legislation.

Republican leaders responded with what almost seems an act of political contortion: They plan to bring to the Senate floor today a Democratic bill on patients' rights that many GOP lawmakers oppose.

The aim of this twisted strategy, Republicans say, is to deprive Democrats of the opportunity to attack a GOP health-care bill. The catch is that, under a deal worked out by leaders of both parties, Republicans have the right to offer the last amendment in this week's debate. They plan to use that opportunity to put forward their own bill.

Mr. Clinton, who called the Republican antics "weird," will meet today in the White House with Senate leaders to discuss patients' rights.

Nonetheless, all the legislative gymnastics show how Republicans, hampered by slim majorities, are being forced to bend over backward to accommodate Democrats or face gridlock.

Democrats' agenda gains prominence

The House is also expected to consider a patients' rights bill this month, under pressure from Democrats and some Republican moderates. Moreover, GOP leaders have recently addressed the issue of gun control - and have agreed to allow debates this year on topics such as raising the minimum wage and reforming campaign-finance laws.

With the political stalemate so far dimming the prospect for major legislative accomplishments, the public's best hope for this Congress is that it pass the mandatory 13 spending bills in an orderly fashion.

"The real question for Republicans in Congress is whether they can avoid chaos and government shutdowns," says Mann.

Congress-watcher Ornstein agrees. "The single most significant direction Americans have given Congress is: Don't mess it up."

The key, he says, will be for GOP leaders to rein in conservatives, who have helped block the appropriations process. "If we end up with the threat of a shutdown and the president has all the leverage, it will be very hard for [the GOP Congress] to be judged positively this year."

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