Congress back, seeks better image Lawmakers hope cooperation will improve image

September 07, 1993|By New York Times News Service The Christian Science Monitor contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Congress returns from vacation today to confront the heaviest variety of complex legislative issues it has faced in many years, while hoping to improve its standing with the public by seeking solutions to the nation's toughest problems.

None of this fall's issues may prove to be as challenging as President Clinton's budget bill, which barely passed in both houses last month. But the vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) may be as close, and the health care overhaul may be even more complicated, even though both may well attract a level of bipartisan cooperation all but unseen in the 103rd Congress.

The range of the agenda awes many lawmakers. Even without health and trade, Congress would have a heavy fall schedule with commitments to act on these issues:

* Additional spending cuts will be needed, because leaders in August fell $4 billion short of their goal of $500 billion in deficit reduction.

* Crime and handgun control will be back. A Republican filibuster killed the legislation in the Senate last year after the House passed it by a 205-203 vote in 1991.

* Campaign finance will generate intense debate, with neither party wanting to give the other any possible advantage, and incumbents generally seeing the current system as satisfactory because it elected them.

* Procedural changes within Congress itself will be sought, but like legislation on lobbying and campaign spending, this seems to many legislators like pandering to noisy reformers.

* Immigration will be addressed, but while there is widespread agreement on the need to tighten up on phony asylum claims, the agreement begins to unravel with the tugs of civil liberties claims.

The priority list does not stop there. The savings and loan cleanup still needs money. The extension on unemployment benefits is about to expire. Republicans fear that education legislation is aimed at too much national control. And abortion is almost certain to cause some sharp legislative battles.

One reason the 103rd Congress faces so many contentious issues is that once the Clinton administration was in office, Congress quickly disposed of the easy ones -- all the bills that it had agreed on last year but that President George Bush had vetoed, such as family leave and simplified voter registration.

Once the Senate finally passes the final version of the national service bill today or tomorrow, said Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly of Connecticut, a Democrat and chief deputy whip, "I don't think anything easy is left, even appropriations."

The issues will test the Clinton administration's ability to build coalitions and muster grass-roots support. "The dynamics will be dramatically different than during consideration of the budget," says James Thurber, a political scientist at American University. "Local interests are pushing these issues."

Most lawmakers, as part of their monthlong respite, have been finding out what those local interests are -- at Rotary clubs, church bazaars and VFW halls. What does change mean?

"People want to see results," says Rep. Sam Coppersmith, an Arizona Democrat. "They want to see change, but they are not exactly sure what that means."

In his town meetings and strolls through the Minnesota state fair, Republican Rep. Rod Grams found the anger with Washington palpable. He discovered one of his favorite lines -- about Congress' approval rating being on par with a used car salesman's, and a man stands up and says, "Don't compare me with you guys!" -- resonated a little too much.

"People are frustrated that Congress hasn't changed the way they thought it would," says Mr. Grams, a member of this year's huge freshman class.

If Republicans are true to their word, some of the steps this fall may prove less slippery than the legislative terrain endured by President Clinton's economic stimulus and budget bills. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas said that people he had been talking with back home were "pleased that we have some issues we may work together on."

The trade agreement is one. House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois said of the pact: "The president can count on more support on our side than his side."

It is more than an opportunity to appear cooperative, although Republicans have been concerned that their antagonism to many Clinton programs might be stamping them as obstructionists. NAFTA, basically negotiated by Mr. Bush, is a measure Republicans can approach with enthusiasm. Sen. John Danforth, a Missouri Republican, said that the last six months were "a real downer" but that NAFTA would show "it's a good thing to have Republicans engaged in the business of governing."

Sen. John H. Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican, said of NAFTA: "It's good for the nation, and it's good for jobs. There is a certain wry pleasure we will get out of seeing the Democrats lash their president."

Hope of 'commonality'

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