WASHINGTON -- The Republican-led Congress burnished yesterday a record of achievement that seemed unlikely only weeks ago by giving final approval to bills that will reform health insurance, raise the minimum wage and protect drinking water.
Lawmakers then headed home for a month to campaign for re-election, with this two-year term nearly finished. Both parties have delivered on key items of their agendas despite the explosive partisan clashes that twice forced partial government shutdowns and halted legislative action for months.
"We've seen Congress go from gridlock to Olympic gold," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott told nearly 200 jubilant Republicans gathered yesterday to celebrate the rapid-fire passage of major bills. "The last two weeks has probably been my most exciting time in all of my years in Congress over the past 23 years."
In addition to the bills passed yesterday, the final week's action included a comprehensive overhaul of the welfare system that reversed six decades of guaranteed aid to all poor who qualify.
The health care bill would guarantee the "portability" of insurance from job to job and ensure access to insurance for anyone with an existing medical condition.
The bill to raise the minimum wage would increase the $4.25-an-hour pay in two steps, to $5.15 Sept. 1, 1997.
And another major bill passed yesterday would upgrade standards and provide funding to improve deteriorating drinking-water systems. All the major bills passed this week are expected to be signed into law by President Clinton.
"We've come a long way after a great deal of effort, and we're extraordinarily pleased with the work that we've been able to do," Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said at a similar victory rally for his party.
This eleventh-hour spurt was something of a bipartisan salvage mission for a Congress in danger of looking as if it could do nothing.
The Republican majority that took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years spent much of the past 18 months trying to reduce the reach of the federal government and reverse four decades of Democratic social policy. But the Democrats had enough votes -- particularly in the Senate -- to greatly impede them.
"It was a recipe for paralysis, and that's what we got," said Joseph Cooper, a professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. "But when you get close to an election, fear and trembling sets in. So they started passing a number of bills."
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the focus of most of the Democratic attacks on a Republican agenda they called extremist, claimed vindication yesterday.
"Yes, we got clobbered in the short run," Gingrich told his colleagues. "Yes, there were a couple months when, frankly, between our stumbles and the lies of their ads, things didn't look very good. But day by day, we are regaining the genuine sense of accomplishment.
"This is the most significant Congress in a generation," he added. "Not since 1965-66 have we ever seen the kind of productivity. And this week rivaled, I think, Lyndon Johnson at his best."
Despite the sweep of its health and welfare bills, this Congress probably will not be ranked by most analysts as being as momentous as the one that passed Johnson's anti-poverty legislation. The current Republican-led lawmakers failed to see much of their agenda enacted into law.
But considering the scope of what the newly empowered Republicans attempted, this Congress ranks as the most ambitious in at least a decade. Its boldest move was to pass a seven-year balanced budget bill that would have shaved nearly $1 trillion from federal spending. Republican leaders negotiated that budget through both houses of Congress, only to have it vetoed by Clinton.
"I always thought this was a very significant Congress -- even when it looked like they might get nothing done -- because they are trying to change the direction of government," said Stephen J. Hess, a congressional analyst at the Brookings Institution.
While the Republicans failed to achieve their major goal of balancing the budget and shrinking the federal government, they made what Gingrich called a "down payment." Their tight-fisted approach resulted in $53 billion in cuts in government spending, the deepest such reductions ever.
Through the welfare reform bill, passed twice before in different versions but vetoed by Clinton, the Republicans are also ending a 61-year guarantee of cash benefits to the poor, requiring instead that able-bodied welfare recipients work. That measure will also save an additional $55 billion over six years, largely by denying benefits to legal immigrants.
What's more, the Republican-led Congress enacted a farm bill that ended a Depression-era subsidy program and deregulated the telecommunications industry to allow competition among telephone and cable television firms.