Congress, back after a hot summer, wants domestic items on front burner

September 10, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Congress gets back to business today, only to find that business has changed in the five weeks it has been on vacation.

But if the collapse of the Soviet Union promises to trigger new arguments about foreign aid and military spending, it does not threaten to overshadow the domestic issues pressed by congressional Democrats on a reluctant President Bush since the beginning of the year.

Indeed, Democratic leaders are striving to keep those matters at the top of the agenda -- where, they hope, ensuing debates will benefit Democratic candidates in next year's elections. So, for example, the House is expected to resuscitate a Democratic bill to ex

tend unemployment benefits, though Mr. Bush, citing budget concerns, has flatly said he will not go along with it.

"The president says it's OK to bust the budget for the Kurds and the Israelis . . . but not for the American worker," said House Majority Whip David E. Bonior, D-Mich.

"We need to do more about taking care of our own house."

That is the message Democrats will try to hammer home in coming weeks. But the explosive nature of some foreign issues may thwart efforts to exploit the theme.

Consider the recent Israeli request for $10 billion in loan guarantees to help settle Soviet emigres. Already it has stirred up a hornet's nest on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers anticipate a tug of war between the Bush administration, which wants to delay action on the request until after an October Mideast

peace conference, and the powerful Israeli lobby.

The problem for Democrats, as one party aide put it, is threefold.

"First, Democrats don't benefit from alienating Democratic supporters of Israel. Second, Democrats don't benefit from screwing up the peace process," he said. "And third, Democrats don't benefit from jumping up and down and demanding $10 billion in

loan guarantees for Israel when they criticize Bush for spending too much time and money on foreign issues."

Other topics cleave along comparatively uncertain lines. The abortion issue, for instance, is slated to flare up almost as soon as lawmakers arrive in town. The Senate is supposed to vote today on whether to limit debate on a human-services spending bill that would direct Medicaid, which presently pays for abortions only when the mother's life is in danger, to pay in cases of rape and incest.

More likely to survive the legislative process is a part of the bill overturning a recent Supreme Court decision preventing federally funded family planning clinics from dispensing information about abortions. Mr. Bush has threatened a veto if either measure is in the bill, yet some Democrats are expected to

support him in the event he adopts such a stance.

An impending battle over civil rights legislation could also affect both parties in unforeseen ways.

The current bill would make it easier to sue and collect damages in job discrimination cases. Administration allies oppose an effort by Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., to craft a compromise, contending it would force businesses to hire by quota.

Perhaps the single most significant piece of legislation to be considered by Congress -- a bill to overhaul the nation's banking system -- appears to lack any easy possibilities for partisan advantage. The bill, headed for the House floor by a self-imposed Sept. 27 deadline, would also provide emergency funds to avert insolvency of the deposit insurance fund.

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