Congress' priority: early adjournment Avoiding controversy: If spending bills are passed, lawmakers may leave by November.

September 03, 1997

WITH THEIR APPROVAL RATING on the rise, members of Congress returned to Capitol Hill this week with hopes of avoiding controversies that might antagonize the public. This does not bode well for a number of important issues on the national agenda.

The public's perception of Congress rose sharply after passage of the balanced-budget bill and the tax-cut package this summer. That, plus a continuing stream of good news on the economic front, has most Americans in a happy mood. Woe to the political party that dashes this happiness with a gridlocked Washington.

So the main thrust of senators and representatives is to finish work on spending bills -- and then beat it out of town.

Still, conflict is unavoidable. Conservative Republicans want amendments to appropriation bills (that President Clinton won't accept) to extend the just-passed tax-free education savings accounts to tuition at private and religious schools; deny welfare recipients federal worker protection in their new jobs, and block writing of national reading and math tests.

But the fear of a Clinton veto and a prolonged fall session could persuade GOP leaders to shelve such amendment tussles till spring.

The president wants action on his request for fast-track authority in negotiating trade treaties, subject only to an up-or-down vote by Congress. This pits free-trade conservative Republicans and Mr. Clinton against liberal Democrats seeking to write tough labor and environmental standards into any accord. If the president tries too hard to assuage liberal Democrats, he'll lose Republican backing.

A different kind of fight looms over renewing the surface transportation act. Congressmen from the South and Midwest seek a bigger chunk of gas-tax revenues; Northeast lawmakers want to retain their current share. Compromise lurks in a larger spending allotment that gives every state more road and transit money.

Though Congress ought to start reforming campaign finance abuses, it's unlikely. There's not much political enthusiasm for overhauling fund-raising rules. At least the Senate hearings on money-raising tactics -- with Vice President Al Gore in the spotlight tomorrow -- could spark some needed public outrage. That would put pressure on Congress to at least outlaw "soft money" contributions to political parties when it reassembles early next year.

Pub Date: 9/03/97

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