New, more diverse Congress must tackle big problems

January 04, 1993|By The Christian Science Monitor

WASHINGTON -- The newly elected 103rd Congress, sportin nearly 120 freshmen members, convenes tomorrow for what could be a history-making session that touches the lives of every American.

Capitol Hill expects to get proposals this year from soon-to-be-President Bill Clinton on health care, education, job-training, the federal deficit, and emergency measures to prime the economy.

"This is arguably the most important Congress since 1965," when President Johnson pushed through landmark civil rights legislation, says an aide to House majority leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.

It will also be the most diverse Congress in history, with record numbers of blacks, Hispanics, and women, including six women in the Senate.

This Congress, like the president-elect, got its marching orders straight from the voters: Jobs must be the nation's top priority in the year ahead. With that in mind, Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill anticipate that four areas will top the agenda for Congress and the White House:

* Short-term economics. Mr. Clinton must decide how many billions of dollars of extra funds for roads, bridges, and other government projects he would like to spend to jump-start the slow-moving economy. Estimates range from $20 billion to $40 billion.

* Long-term economics. In the first half of 1993, Mr. Clinton will try to find the right mix of spending on education, training, infrastructure, research, development, and other programs to create millions of new jobs in 1994 and beyond.

* Health-care reform. Even if the economy revives, the nation will eventually go bankrupt, Mr. Clinton says, unless health-care costs are controlled and coverage is provided for the 35 million Americans now left uninsured or under-insured.

* Deficit reduction. With the federal budget in the red by $341 billion and with the national debt rapidly rising toward $4.5 trillion, Mr. Clinton is under severe pressure to take strong measures, perhaps including tax increases, to bring the books closer to balance. One option: higher taxes on energy, including gasoline.

One reason for the excitement here is the new makeup of the House and Senate. Both will begin to lose some of their old look -- which resembled white male clubhouses -- and reflect more of America's diversity.

The number of women will nearly double, from 31 to 54. Hispanics will rise from 14 to 20. Blacks will increase from 26 to 39, including the first black in the Senate in recent years -- Carol Mosely Braun, D-Ill.

But it is more than the racial or gender balance of the Congress that fascinates this city. The new members, as well as those who were re-elected, survived an angry election, a reckoning with voters who were upset with a weakened economy, crime, and what they perceived as low ethical standards in government.

The 110 new House members and the nine new senators could be the sharpened edge of a sword of change that could champion campaign reform, a line-item veto, and an attack on the mounting federal debt.

Meanwhile, Congress is stepping up to the starting line for what many here hope will be a rush of major legislation.

As one House aide notes: "We're going to be organized for action from the very moment President Clinton removes his hand from the Bible."

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