Members of Congress expected to return to partisan bickering After cooperating on budget, politics as usual is likely to resume

September 02, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- They left town on a bipartisan high after reaching a historic compact with the White House to balance the federal budget while cutting taxes. But as members of Congress return to work this week from their August recess, partisan fighting is expected to resume.

The budget deal, in fact, may have made the division inevitable by blurring the philosophical distinctions between the two parties. Many rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans are eager to sharpen their political differences as another election year approaches, one in which control of Congress will be at stake -- especially the 435-member House, where the GOP holds a 21-seat margin.

"The mayhem and bickering are about to return -- and just in time," said Paul Gigot, a right-of-center commentator. "The era of bipartisanship is over precisely because of the budget deal. Let the brawling begin."

The appetite for ideology-driven combat should quickly manifest itself as both houses focus on the most pressing business at hand: enacting the 13 big appropriations bills needed to keep the government running.

Those measures, which follow the broad outlines of the balanced-budget legislation, must be passed and signed by President Clinton by Oct. 1, the start of the new federal fiscal year. Otherwise the government must shut down, unless all parties agree to a "continuing resolution" to keep the government in operation.

So far, the House has finished work on eight of the 13 bills, and the Senate 10. But not one has reached the Oval Office. Complicating the task is the new presidential line-item veto authority, which Clinton has already used to kill three provisions in the balanced-budget legislation.

"As they sit down to hash things out, one of the things the appropriators will want is assurances from the White House that the president won't use the line-item veto. And that's going to eat up most of September," said David Mason, senior fellow in congressional studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Among the major issues Congress is expected to quickly take up is a presidential request for "fast-track" authority to negotiate multilateral trade treaties. The legislation would allow such pacts to get an up-or-down vote within 90 days, without being encumbered by amendments. This authority expired at the end of 1994.

Another high-priority item is the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which expires Sept. 30. Lawmakers representing regional interests will have to agree on how to divvy up $157 billion in transportation programs around the country.

Also awaiting action is the proposed $368.5 billion legal settlement between the tobacco industry and state attorneys general.

Beyond those issues, GOP congressional leaders are divided over what to do -- if anything.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert L. Livingston, a Louisiana Republican, would like to get the 13 funding measures enacted and then adjourn for the year, allowing members to go home and boast about their accomplishments.

"Rather than stomping on our own lines, we ought to just relax awhile. We've had a good year; this is a crowning achievement," he said, referring to enactment of the five-year balanced-budget accord.

But some congressional GOP strategists, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich, are contemplating "broad themes" to be articulated in the run-up to the off-year elections.

"I believe we will have a vision in September and October that will move us into the '98 campaign with a clear choice for America's future. That will set the stage for the 2000 campaign," Gingrich said in a recent interview with the National Journal magazine.

Two disputes over contested election results could generate some of the most partisan rancor. House and Senate Democrats alike have threatened to disrupt all legislative business except for the appropriations bills unless Republicans stop investigating alleged irregularities in the 1996 Senate election of Mary L. Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, over Republican Woody Jenkins and the House election of Loretta Sanchez, a California Democrat, over Republican Robert K. Dornan.

Bicameral disruptions also could occur over campaign finance reform.

A further breakdown of bipartisanship looms with resumption of hearings on campaign fund-raising activities by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

The House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, chaired by partisan firebrand Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, is expected to soon begin its own, much-delayed hearings.

One of the more high-profile fights involves Clinton's appointment of newly retired Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld, a Republican, to be ambassador to Mexico. Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, is refusing to grant Weld a hearing before his Foreign Relations Committee -- to the consternation of not only the Senate Democrats but also some of Helms' own GOP colleagues.

On taxes, Republicans plan to debate further cuts and whether to reform, or even abolish, the Internal Revenue Service.

Pub Date: 9/02/97

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