Congress passes months of landmark bills in a week Much is accomplished just before recess

March 30, 1996|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In a sudden burst of action, the Republican-led Congress raced through months' worth of business this week and sent several landmark bills to the president's desk before leaving yesterday for a two-week Easter break.

"This is probably the most productive week we've ever had," said Sen. Don Nickles, a Oklahoma Republican.

In the same week that Bob Dole, the candidate, secured the Republican presidential nomination, Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader, led the Congress through passage of:

* The first national limits on "pain and suffering" damages that can be awarded in lawsuits involving faulty products.

* A phase-out of Depression-era crop subsidies to farmers, considered the most sweeping reform of farm programs in 50 years.

* A major transfer of power from Congress to the presidency by allowing the president to veto some individual items in broad spending bills.

* An increase, to $30,000 from $11,520, on the annual income that senior citizens can earn without losing any Social Security benefits.

4 * More flexible regulations on small businesses.

* An extension of the federal government's authority to borrow money, a step that will remove the contentious issue from congressional politics for a year and a half.

With the exception of the product liability bill, all the measures are considered certain to be signed into law by President Clinton.

Democrats contend that the week looks good only when compared with the long months of budget stalemate and the abbreviated work schedule of the Republican presidential primary season.

"I think we should have had a productive quarter," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat. "We had major legislative business to do in January, February and March, but so many of the Republicans were running for president we couldn't get a quorum. I'm glad they're back."

For many, the biggest disappointment was that Congress and the White House failed again to reach agreement on the last vestige of the Republicans' high-profile drive to balance the budget by 2002: a bill that would provide spending authority for the rest of the year for dozens of departments and agencies still operating without budgets.

Before the lawmakers raced to their planes yesterday afternoon, they voted for the 12th time in six months to keep the government open on a temporary basis, Mr. Clinton signed the measure last night. Many agencies will continue to receive only about 75 percent of last year's spending allotment until a compromise can be reached.

"We're 90 percent there," Rep. Robert L. Livingston, a Louisiana Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said of the marathon negotiations on a spending bill for the rest of the year that continued almost through the night Thursday.

"This is very complex, trying to find agreement between House Republicans, Senate Republicans, House Democrats, Senate Democrats and the White House. But we really needed one more day."

Even if a deal for the fiscal year 1996 can finally be reached after the lawmakers return next month, as Mr. Livingston says he hopes, budget negotiators will get no rest. They are already late in preparing spending bills to finance the government in the fiscal year 1997, which begins in October.

"This is no way to run a government," said Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat. He complained that local school boards still have no idea how much federal school aid they will get for the next school year. "It's totally irresponsible."

Mr. Dole and his allies in the Republican leadership tried to light a fire under reluctant colleagues this week to give the Republican-run Congress a better batting record.

"This Congress makes the do-nothing Congress of 1948 look activist," said Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate Democratic leader.

But Mr. Dole, who will be prodding colleagues in the next months to approve health care reform, immigration reform, a balanced-budget amendment and a host of other measures, counters: "We're going to be known as a do-too-much Congress."

Running for the presidency from his Senate perch is a tricky strategy for Mr. Dole that clearly carries some perils. The Democrats delighted this week when they outfoxed the majority leader on a parliamentary move, and thus won a test vote on President Clinton's proposal for raising the minimum wage, which the Republican leaders oppose.

Mr. Dole had maneuvered to avoid such a vote because it would embarrass Republicans who would rather not vote against it -- possibly including himself.

"This will not happen again," Mr. Dole said.

Pub Date: 3/30/96

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