Congress takes unfinished business to campaign trail

Unable to find consensus on tax cuts and patients' rights, parties willappeal to voters to back their agenda.

As it quits Washington for the year, the Republican-led Congress is leaving behind a list of unfinished business as long as a string of popcorn and cranberries.

Still, each party hopes to turn the frustrating lack of legislative accomplishment into successful campaign-trail issues as the 2000 election heats up.

Social Security reform, tax cuts, patients' rights, and gun control are just a few of the major agenda items that Republicans or Democrats seek to transform into voter wish lists.

Opinion polls show Democrats enjoying a traditional advantage on most of the legislative issues that Americans currently consider important, with the public trusting them to do a better job.

Republicans, in contrast, are on the defensive on many fronts, seeking to "inoculate" themselves against potentially adverse voter reaction to their policies, say GOP lawmakers and strategists.

Nevertheless, both sides rightly point out that Congress's track record is only one element in the 2000 race and could easily be eclipsed by the agendas of presidential nominees and nonlegislative issues such as character.

Indeed, GOP congressional leaders clearly hope the party's public reputation for upholding higher ethical standards, as well as its front-running presidential candidate Texas Gov. George W. Bush, will give Republicans an edge they lack on policy issues.

"The values issues run first, and we have a strong edge," says Rep. Thomas Davis (R) of Virginia, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

"The need to restore integrity and honesty and a bond of faith between voters and their government is ... an undercurrent [in 2000]," says Republican strategist Ed Gillespie. "It's there whether Republican candidates emphasize it or not."

Just this week, Mr. Bush vowed in a new campaign advertisement to restore dignity to the White House. While Bush and other GOP candidates are not expected to refer directly to President Clinton's sex scandal or impeachment, Republicans view Mr. Clinton's failings as "a big problem for Al Gore," says Mr. Gillespie.

More broadly, congressional Republicans hope Bush's overall popularity and message will boost their chances to retain control of the House and Senate in 2000.

"It's hard to get your message out as a big legislative body, but once we have a nominee, we will be articulated in the presidential race," says Mr. Davis. "Congressional races generally fall in behind the standard-bearers."

But all the talk of Bush and values can't obscure the fact that, in polls at least, Republicans have so far failed to use control of Congress to gain a significant advantage over Democrats on agenda issues.

"Politically, the Republicans had an awful year in Congress," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "They were defined by the big wrong thing they wanted to do, [which] was to cut taxes at the expense of doing more to fix Social Security."

GOP leaders say that their major defining action, the passage of an $800 billion tax cut, which Clinton vetoed, has not resonated widely with voters enjoying a booming economy. "Taxes are a funny issue, they play better in a down economy than in a growing economy," Davis says.

Still, GOP analysts predict a tax cut will prove more popular a year from now, when a Republican presidential candidate can persuade voters a tax-relief bill would not be vetoed again. Meanwhile, Democrats are hopeful that most of Congress's other major unresolved agenda issues, led by Social Security reform, will play in their favor during the 2000 election.

Democrats joined with Republicans in supporting a so-called fiscal "lock box" to preserve the current Social Security surplus in the interests of future reform. But they have criticized the GOP for failing to inject new funds into the Social Security system, as Clinton proposed, and voting to cut taxes instead.

Republicans, for their part, contend that the "lock box" prevented Democrats from spending the Social Security surplus on new government programs and add that GOP proposals to partially privatize the retirement accounts is appealing to voters. Still, Republicans acknowledge that Democrats have traditionally enjoyed greater trust from the public when it comes to managing the nation's retirement system, which is projected to face a benefits shortfall beginning in about 2030.

Other issues Democrats intend to push to their advantage include managed-care reform, prescription-drug benefits, and a minimum-wage increase, as well as gun control and campaign-finance overhaul.

"Republicans have been galvanized ... to kill these pieces of legislation, and if that's the case, we will take the debate to voters," says John Del Cecato of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Not so, say GOP leaders, who expressed willingness to forge compromises on raising the minimum wage and protecting patients before the election.

But if the GOP opts to switch rather than fight, Democrats won't make it easy for them. "We've got the high side of the debate on these issues, so we're in a position to drive a hard bargain," says Mr. Garin.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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