New Congress faces tall plans and long odds Lawmakers, many of them freshmen, convene tomorrow

January 04, 1993|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- A new Congress will take office tomorrow with a lot of big talk to live up to -- and the odds stacked against success.

Pumped up with 25 percent new blood and a battle cry to end Washington's gridlock, the nation's fresh crop of lawmakers now has to make good where its predecessors failed on the most pressing problems: creating jobs, guaranteeing access to health care and balancing the federal books.

"There's a great sense of opportunity," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, a Washington state Democrat who is about to begin his 15th term.

But while Mr. Foley and his Democratic colleagues are almost giddy at the prospect of helping to run the country with a president of their own party for the first time in 12 years, they are also sobered by the prospect of having no one to blame for their failures.

"It's not going to be without risk of disappointment, and a sense of betraying the public confidence," the speaker said.

Taking the oath of office tomorrow will be the largest freshman class in Congress since 1944. The new members were elected in the wake of the House Bank scandal, the Senate's cavalier treatment of Anita F. Hill's sexual harassment charges against Clarence Thomas, and an epidemic of burnout among frustrated Capitol Hill veterans.

As a result, this Congress is younger, blacker, more female, more Hispanic and more liberal than the last. Yet this is no group of wild-eyed radicals ready to set the place on its ear. More than 80 percent of the new members have served in previous political posts. Their top reform priority was getting more seats opened to them on the most powerful committees.

Although many say they are ready to join President-elect Bill Clinton in making the hard choices necessary to address the nation's problems, they also know they are the first who will be xTC punished by the voters -- particularly by special-interest groups -- if the pain is too great.

Thus, the record of the 103rd Congress will be largely Mr. Clinton's to shape.

"He's the one who's got to look some of these groups in the eye and tell them to get off the backs of the congresspeople who vote with him," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Marylander who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. "But I think he might do it. I hope so."

The new Democratic president, who won the election vowing to change the status quo, began working almost immediately to woo the newly elected Congress.

He has spent three full days on Capitol Hill, meeting with the old bulls and the Young Turks, and has entertained many of them in Little Rock, Ark. He flatters newcomers by knowing their first names and wins points with crusaders by understanding the intricacies of their issues.

The president-elect has also appointed four members of Congress, including three chairmen of major committees, to his administration's first string.

"He's built a lobbying team right into his Cabinet," said Stephen J. Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution.

But there is no guarantee that if Mr. Clinton tries to follow through on his bold talk of cutting the deficit by tampering with such Democratic sacred cows as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security -- not to mention overhauling the welfare system and taxing employer-paid health benefits -- that he will have the new Congress behind him.

"We'll see how it goes," hedged George J. Mitchell of Maine, the Senate Democratic leader, when asked about the likelihood that his party would finally administer the tough economic medicine Mr. Clinton says is needed. "I think everything should be considered."

Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the Republican leader, is quicker to predict support from his side of the aisle.

Mr. Clinton is "probably going to need a lot of Republican votes," said Paul Hewitt, vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, a conservative watchdog group. "But I think he's got a real chance to create a new political alignment."

The new president and a majority of the legislators seem to share priorities. Creating jobs, eliminating the deficit and reforming the health care system were the top three issues cited by both Republicans and Democrats, according to a recent Gallup Poll of the newly elected Congress.

But there is little agreement on how to address those issues, and building a consensus is likely to take time. With the economy clearly in a slow but steady recovery, most of the pressure for speedy enactment of a short-term stimulus package is off. Instead, Mr. Clinton has said he will combine public and private investment initiatives with a multiyear deficit-reduction plan that is likely to be outlined in early February, when he offers his first budget.

The impetus for hard bargaining on the fiscal package could come by March, when the government will be about to run out of money and Congress will be asked to raise the debt ceiling of $4.145 trillion so the Treasury Department can borrow more.

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