Congress gets cracking Legislation burgeons in wake of election

November 08, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun Republican health care reform plan Washington Bureau of The SunWashington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Jolted by Tuesday's regional elections, when voters around the country registered discontent with the status quo, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are scurrying to capitalize on the public's displeasure.

Just two days after Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa., trounced former Bush administration Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh in Pennsylvania's Senate race, Senate Republicans lined up behind large-scale plan to overhaul the nation's health care system.

Similarly, as Democratic power brokers contemplated bruising setbacks in New Jersey, Virginia and Mississippi, House Democratic leaders closed ranks yesterday around a new soak-the-rich plan to cut taxes for middle-income workers.

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers continued to promote various late-blooming schemes to overhaul Congress and its practices, Democratic leaders laid plans to pass a new version of a twice-vetoed bill to extend unemployment benefits, and both sides continued to circle warily in the continuing face-off over campaign finance reforms.

"Just call it the Search for the Lessons of Tuesday," said Sen. AlanK. Simpson, R-Wyo. Representative Robert T. Matsui, D-Calif., agreed, saying, "The elections have increased the intensity of things around here."

Both parties are working through their pre-election year agendas with a new efficiency, and perhaps desperation -- something that might reflect Congress' desire to clear town by Thanksgiving as much as its concerns over Tuesday's results.

But the elections have lent their own special flavor to the annual end-of-the-session scramble. Consider the timing of the health reform package unveiled yesterday by the Republicans.

For months, Republicans dickered among themselves over their health package. Last week, plans to unveil their proposals were postponed. White House officials, meanwhile, let their own preference be known: Do nothing, and let the Democrats catch flak over their call for a national health insurance system.

But Tuesday, Mr. Wofford defeated Mr. Thornburgh after waging a hard-fought populist's campaign -- the centerpiece of which was his advocacy of national health insurance. "A citizen has a right to a lawyer when he's charged with a crime," Mr. Wofford said. "He should have a right to a doctor when he's sick."

Sen. John H. Chafee of Rhode Island, who headed the Republicans' health care task force, said yesterday's announcement had nothing to do with Tuesday's races. "We've been working on this for months and months; we didn't just rush this thing to press," he said.

But some of his colleagues conceded that the Wofford-Thornburgh race had changed the tenor of the congressional health care debate.

"It's put the issue on the front burner, no doubt about it," said Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla. And a White House official, only half in jest, said, "Come the State of the Union, George Bush will proclaim himself 'the health care president.' "

If the events in Pennsylvania fueled Republican feelings of vulnerability over health care, local elections in Virginia, Mississippi, and, above all, New Jersey, reminded Democrats that their Achilles' heel remains firmly planted in the tax code.

In New Jersey, for example, voter anger over tax increases put in place by a Democrat, Gov. James J. Florio, swept Republicans into majorities in both houses of the state legislature.

And so, after months spent searching for the right balance between increasing taxes on the well-to-do and decreasing taxes on those of more modest means, House Democratic leaders trumpeted their initiative yesterday -- a tax credit of up to $200 a year for the middle class, paid for by the better-off.

Under the plan, 90 million couples and individuals would get tax cuts -- though only in 1992 and 1993 -- while the richest 1 million would pay more -- forever.

"It runs to the heart of what Democrats stand for," said Representative Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and author of the proposal.

The prospects for the passage of any tax bill appear to hover betweennil and none, but that hasn't stopped other lawmakers -- Republican and Democratic -- from climbing aboard a veritable freight train of proposals.

The latest to leave the station pulled out yesterday -- a plan endorsed by 76 lawmakers in the House and Senate that would && grant limited reductions in capital gains taxes to investors financing small, job-creating companies. The bill was introduced Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., and Representative Matsui.

Rival tax proposals

Rostenkowski tax bill

Provides a two-year tax credit equal to 20 percent of Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes. Capped at $400 for working couples and $200 for individuals.

* Creates a new 35 percent tax bracket for couples earning more than $145,000 and individuals earning more than $85,000.

* Imposes a 10 percent surtax on income above $1 million.

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