Cooperation in Congress is election-year casualty Democrats ensure GOP seems to get nothing done

July 12, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Democrats can see their slogan now: The Republican Congress could have granted new protections to managed care patients, kept our children from smoking, rescued our farmers and improved our schools - yet all it did was rename an airport after Ronald Reagan.

But before they take their campaign against a "do-nothing Congress" on the road this fall, the Democrats seem to be making sure Congress does nothing.

A bold but time-honored strategy has emerged in recent weeks to tie the Senate in knots by attaching partisan legislation to every bill on the Senate floor, then complain that Republicans cannot get anything done.

At best, Democrats may force Republicans to pass their legislation. At worst, they get live ammunition for the fall campaigns.

"Given the choice between having an accomplishment or having the issue, I'll take the accomplishment," Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said Friday.

"Obviously, if you can't have the accomplishment, you look at what other silver linings there are."

The Democrats' insistence on attaching tobacco and managed-care legislation to other, unrelated bills has scuttled a product liability bill and stymied must-pass spending bills for agriculture, veterans programs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Republicans complained that tobacco and managed care are issues that should be dealt with separately.

Now, Democrats are promising to attach an emergency farm bailout to every bill that reaches the Senate floor, again over Republican objections.

"There's an element of politics the closer you get to the fall elections, no doubt about that," conceded Sen. Tim Johnson, a South Dakota Democrat. "But there's also real frustration on the part of Democrats who have an agenda they can't get votes on."

Republicans are furious about what they see as Democratic obstructionism. Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi warned Saturday that stalling by Democrats would make it difficult for Republicans to enact tax cuts and pass other important legislation this year.

"I want you to know in advance what we're up against - so you won't be surprised by some political shenanigans that seem to ** be already in the works," Lott warned in the GOP's weekly radio address.

Lott said the Democrats' "goal is to create a legislative logjam, . . . a logjam that can only be broken by giving President Clinton more of your money to spend."

Sighed Sen. Connie Mack, a Florida Republican, "It's going to be a long summer."

In an election year when no overarching national issue has emerged to galvanize the electorate, Democrats hope to create three: empowering patients in managed care companies, curbing teen smoking, and improving education through smaller classes and school construction.

In addition, Democrats hope that a new push to help farmers stung by record-low agricultural prices and bad weather will help the party in elections in critical farm state races.

And Democrats are laying the groundwork for a claim to fiscal responsibility, should the Republicans continue their push to abolish the tax code and enact broad tax cuts on capital gains and kill the so-called "marriage penalty."

"I don't think there's going to be a nationalized election; I don't think people will walk into a voting booth angry and say the Republicans accomplished nothing," conceded Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster.

"But doing nothing on [managed care], education and some of these other things will come back to haunt them in a number of key races, especially in the House."

In the past, the parties have been able to work together to pass consensus legislation. But this year, Democratic priorities have nothing in common with Republican priorities: tax cuts, tax-preferred education savings accounts and drug control.

"That is one of the biggest problems," Mellman said. "The Republicans have no agenda."

Republicans contend that with the economy humming along and voter satisfaction high, there are no demands for congressional action. The best Washington can do right now is to stay out of the voters' lives, said Lott's spokesman, John Szwartacki.

The conflicting approaches have led to a stalemate.

Lott yanked the 1999 spending plan for agricultural programs from the Senate floor last month, after Democrats tried to attach a new version of tobacco-control legislation.

He also put off a final vote on the Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development 1999 spending bill after Democrats moved to attach to it a broad plan to force managed care companies to give patients more choices.

"That was clearly [Democratic] leadership throwing a hand grenade in the manure pile," complained Sen. Christopher S. Bond, a Missouri Republican and chairman of the subcommittee that drafted the veterans and housing spending bill.

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