Congress returns to a tight schedule
Low expectations abound in the session's waning days
By Dave Kenney/AllPolitics
WASHINGTON (Sept. 8) -- Congress has not given itself much time to wade through all the business it left unfinished before taking its summer vacation. With the Senate returning on Aug. 31 and the House coming back on Sept. 9, lawmakers will have just one month to work with before heading back home to campaign for re-election.
They'll be busy. The question is, will they be productive?
On his first day back, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott urged colleagues in both parties to work together and "do the people's business." But he also suggested the Democrats may be more interested in diverting attention away from the Monica Lewinsky scandal than they are in passing legislation.
"Under the present circumstances, it could be tough to work together," Lott said, "especially if the president's congressional allies circle the wagons and try to shut things down."
But Minority Leader Tom Daschle said it's the Republicans who are threatening to bog down the legislative process, in the hopes of making President Bill Clinton look bad. "If there is a danger of a shutdown, we all know where it originates," Daschle said.
It's in this atmosphere of finger-pointing and low expectations that Congress will try to complete its unfinished business. And there is a lot of it to complete. Lawmakers broke for their August recess without finishing any of the 13 spending bills needed to keep the government running past Oct. 1. The Clinton Administration has threatened presidential vetoes on seven of those bills if they remain in their current forms.
Lott says the tight schedule may make it impossible to finish work on all 13 bills before the Oct. 1 deadline. But he predicts Congress will pass temporary spending agreements, or continuing resolutions, to prevent a government shutdown. "There will be two or three we will have to give an extension to, but we're going to do our job," Lott says.
Here's a rundown of some of the key issues lawmakers will be grappling with as they work on the spending bills and other legislation.
Campaign Finance Overhaul
It's not dead yet.
Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold say they will try to force another vote on their bill to overhaul the nation's campaign finance laws.
"We feel that it's important that this issue be reviewed again in the Senate," McCain says.
The bill appeared to die last February when supporters failed to muster the 60 votes necessary to defeat a Republican filibuster. But then the House passed similar legislation in August, raising hopes that the Senate would try again.
McCain and Feingold say they plan to attach their bill as an amendment to the first available piece of legislation, and over the weekend, Lott said he would allow another vote, possibly as early as this week.
The legislation would, among other things, ban "soft money," the unlimited and unregulated donations that corporations, unions and wealthy individuals can now make to political parties. Critics say that both the Democrats and Republicans have manipulated a legal loophole to funnel millions of dollars of soft money into presidential campaigns.
International Monetary Fund
The Senate seems to agree with Clinton that the U.S. should spend about $18 billion on the International Monetary Fund [IMF] next year. The House is not nearly so willing to free up the funds.
A House subcommittee has approved only $3.4 billion to help the IMF deal with currency crises in developing countries. It has balked at spending an additional $14.5 billion to meet U.S. obligations to the international lending organization. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston has indicated his committee might reinstate the additional funds, but only if the bill mandates stringent reforms at the IMF.
House conservatives, led by Majority Leader Dick Armey, say the IMF has been throwing money at problem economies, only to see countries such as Russia fritter it away.
Supporters of the funding, including Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, say the IMF is running short of money at the very time it should be helping to stabilize economies in places like Russia and Asia. "The amount in this bill is a pittance for a superpower that has important interests to protect on every continent," Leahy says.
What's a Republican to do?
As the House began its vacation last month, Speaker Newt Gingrich called on his troops to go home and drum up support for a new round of tax cuts. The plan he was pushing would have devoted $700 billion dollars of a projected $1.5 trillion federal surplus over the next decade to tax cuts, with the remainder going to Social Security.
The Republican tax-cutters in the House have since scaled back their proposals, but Republicans in the Senate remain skeptical.
Sen. John Chafee, a senior member of Finance Committee, says the timing isn't right, especially with the recent turmoil on Wall Street. "Now is certainly not the time for Congress to embark on massive tax cuts or spending programs predicated on revenues we have not yet received," he says. "Caution, not exuberance, should be our fiscal motto."
Rep. David McIntosh (R-Ind.), leader of the 40-member Conservative Action Team in the House, disagrees. "Tax relief that fuels economic growth will ensure that the economy continues expanding and creating jobs," he says.
Most Democrats favor earmarking the projected surplus for Social Security.
Managed Health Care
Daschle says the Democrats' priority over the next few weeks will be a bill protecting patients against what many people consider the abuses of health maintenance organizations [HMOs] and other managed-care companies.
Lott says the Democrats just "want an issue" for the fall elections.
Before the August break, Lott said he would allow debate on a Republican managed care bill and Democratic substitute if the Democrats would agree to limit the number of amendments. The Democrats turned him down.
Now Daschle says nothing less than a "comprehensive, enforceable Patients Bill of Rights" will do.
Upon returning to the Capitol after the August recess, Lott ran down a list of other issues he wants the Senate to address during the next few weeks. They include:
A do-nothing Congress?
In one of the more memorable political sound bites of the past few months, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt accused the Republican leadership of running "a Bart Simpson Congress: underachievers and proud of it." Republicans struck back, listing a balanced budget, tax relief and welfare reform among their accomplishments.
But much of the high-profile legislation produced by the 105th Congress was passed last year. This year's list is considerably more modest.
Among the highlights of 1998 are a highway bill and legislation reforming the IRS, neither of which required much legislative backbone.
More common this year are the accomplishments of lesser note. For example, of the first dozen bills that Congress passed and the president signed, five named public facilities after popular individuals.
Tuesday September 8, 1998
Clinton reaches out to congressional leaders
Clinton pushes education agenda
Congress returns to a tight schedule
Congressman says no to 'home-run tax'