WASHINGTON — As Congress returns from a monthlong summer recess, it faces a staggering backlog of unfinished legislative work and a multitude of new issues sure to be dominated by bitter partisan clashes and the gathering pressures of the 1988 elections.
Starting today, senators and representatives will have their hands full with the nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court, controversies over budget and trade reform, arms control disputes and the continuing debate over aid to Nicaragua's contras .
In the background are long-delayed plans to overhaul the nation's welfare system, a bill to provide catastrophic health insurance and a stalled proposal to reform the nation's campaign contribution laws.
Congress was unable to act on many of these "big ticket" items before its summer recess, largely because of an unusually severe logjam in the Senate, where Republicans have vowed to delay votes on several Democratic-sponsored proposals. The inertia is not likely to end soon, according to Democratic and Republican leaders.
"We're willing to cooperate and move forward, but we're not going to give up our rights as the minority party and just roll over," said an aide to Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas. "If that means the Congress misses its October recess deadline and works late into the winter on many of these questions, then so be it."
Topping the list of contentious business is Bork's nomination, an issue that has put the White House on a collision course with liberal Democrats and could become a hot topic in the presidential campaign.
The debate on the nomination, which begins Tuesday with two weeks of hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, is expected to focus on whether Bork, a conservative jurist, would fundamentally alter the Supreme Court's ideological balance.
The issue is also likely to get caught up in the Senate's increasingly bitter partisan dissension over other matters. For example, Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) has said that he is not likely to bring up the appointment for a confirmation vote until mid-October at the earliest. That announcement sparked protests from Dole and other Republicans, who believe the nomination should have come to a vote by now.
Moreover, several Democrats have said that they may hold a filibuster that would further delay action on the nomination. The slowdown would be in retaliation for the similar moves by Senate Republicans against Democratic-sponsored bills this year, according to Byrd. A final vote on Bork could be held hostage for months, or at least until Republicans "see the virtue of responsible compromise" and agree to allow action on several bills, including proposals for campaign finance reform, he added.
Meanwhile, Congress and the White House will be wrestling with aid to the Nicaraguan rebels and competing peace plans for Central America. Few in Congress seem to know how a cease-fire plan promoted by Reagan and House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) can be reconciled with another proposal advanced by the leaders of five Central American nations, including Nicaragua, a ranking aide to Byrd said.
More troubling to the White House, though, is how it can obtain extended military aid for the contras without appearing to undercut either peace proposal. Although Dole and other Republican leaders favor placing a sizable amount of such aid "in escrow," pending peace negotiations, Wright and other Democrats strongly oppose such an approach.
Another flash point is the trade reform bill, which was nearing completion in Congress shortly before the summer recess but which the White House has threatened to veto. Reagan is strongly opposed to provisions in the House version calling for mandatory retaliation against unfair trade practices by other nations, as well as the Senate bill's requirement that industrial firms give 60 days' notice before closing a plant.
House and Senate negotiators have been meeting in recent weeks to hammer out a compromise proposal that would get enough votes to overcome a Reagan veto. But a Senate Republican staff member familiar with the negotiations said that "it is very much in question" whether the final bill would be able to meet the demands of labor unions and still survive a veto.
Debate on Gramm-Rudman
Congress will also be racing to meet an Oct. 1 deadline to approve the nation's $1-trillion budget for the new fiscal year. To date, the House has passed 13 of the 19 appropriation bills that make up the budget, but the Senate has approved none. As in previous years, Congress is likely to wrap all of the spending measures into one legislative bill, known as a continuing resolution, and send the package to Reagan for signature.