Congress: Now for the Second Half

January 25, 1992

Right on schedule, the second half of the 102nd Congress is off to a fast start with the Democratic leadership pushing health care insurance reform, tax cuts, extension of unemployment insurance and domestic spending to fight the recession. Republicans are more subdued as they await President Bush's State of the Union address.

As is the case with all election year legislative sessions, this one will be steeped in politics.

Take health care and the "play or pay" measure introduced by Sens. George Mitchell and Edward Kennedy. Employers who don't offer health insurance to workers would have to do so or put money into a government-controlled pool. While this bill whipped through Mr. Kennedy's Labor and Human Relations Committee, it may hit a roadblock in the Senate Finance Committee chaired by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. Along with many Republicans, he prefers tax incentives to make health insurance almost irresistible to small employers.

Another issue that is less clear than it seems is tax cuts. While most Democrats have jumped on the bandwagon to reduce middle-class taxes, the Senate's two Democratic presidential candidates -- Bob Kerrey and Tom Harkin -- are on opposite sides. As for Republicans, they are split between those who want consumer-oriented and investment-spurring emphasis.

On unemployment insurance extension, which Mr. Bush resisted in the belief (or hope) the recession would end last year, all signs are go. The president flipped once by accepting an extension; he is unlikely to slip back to oppose another.

This Congress in its first session passed a major transportation bill, a civil rights bill to combat employment discrimination and a resolution approving the use of force in the gulf war.

But it failed on banking reform, campaign-finance reform and other key measures. The second session may escape anything as traumatizing as the confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas, but the approval of housing loan guarantees for Israel, economic aid for the former Soviet Union and normal trading arrangements with mainland China will cause plenty of pain.

Senator Mitchell defends the record of Congress by saying the game is at halftime. How it comes out in the end may be decided more at the political conventions and in the polling booths than on the floor of the Senate and the House.

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