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More Cooperation Likely on Key Issues Facing Congress : Government: Clinton's economic plan barely survived partisan wars. Now lawmakers will take up NAFTA, an anti-crime bill and welfare reform.


WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans and Democrats, whose partisan wars nearly scuttled President Clinton's budget and tax bill last month, are more likely to cooperate on major legislation in the months ahead, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) predicted Wednesday.

Congress returns from its monthlong summer recess Tuesday to face a number of high-profile initiatives, some of which will turn recent congressional alliances upside down as Republicans step behind elements of Clinton's agenda and large numbers of Democrats turn away.

At the top of the list is the North American Free Trade Agreement, which would lower tariffs and remove trade barriers with Mexico and Canada. Republicans may save the treaty, which is opposed by many Democrats.

The GOP also is expected to support anti-crime legislation and welfare reform in the Senate, possibly smoothing the way for passage later this year, Mitchell said in a telephone interview from his home state of Maine.

Republican backing for the Administration's health care program, however, is far less certain. That plan is expected to be unveiled by the President on Sept. 22. While hearings will be conducted by Senate and House committees, neither body is likely to vote on the measure this year.

Alluding to the Republican phalanx against Clinton's economic program, Mitchell said: "Everybody was hurt by that. The Republicans seemed to be completely negative and obstructionist. The polls indicate that 65% of the people think they (Republicans) are against everything for political reasons . . . so I expect they will want to be more cooperative."

Many Republicans have gone on record in favor of the trade agreement, which was negotiated by former President George Bush and has been denounced by former independent presidential candidate Ross Perot, as well as by such liberal Democrats as the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Congressional observers said that the trade bill will require substantial Republican help in both the Senate and the House to overcome well-entrenched Democratic opposition.

Mitchell said, however, that he has not decided whether he will support a suggestion by his GOP counterpart, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, to have the Senate take up the controversial treaty before it is considered in the House, where it faces die-hard opposition from a sizable bloc of Democrats.

Strategy for the bill will be worked out with the White House, Mitchell said. But he expressed confidence that the votes will be found, with GOP help, to secure approval. "Once we take it up, I expect it'll pass this year," he said.

In the House, where Majority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) is spearheading the Democratic opposition, prospects are dimmer.

"My guess is that the Administration will get it up here sooner, rather than later, because opposition will build if they wait," said a senior aide to House Democratic leaders.

Mitchell also said that he plans to discuss swift action this fall on a crime bill with Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. While Republicans filibustered to kill previous Democratic legislation on crime, they are expected to work out an agreement this year to avoid being tagged as obstructionists on an issue with strong voter appeal.

In the same way, Mitchell said, he hopes to meet with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, to consider action this year on a bill to overhaul the welfare system in line with Clinton's recommendations to end lifetime dependence on government payments.

Shortly after it returns, the Senate will vote on the controversial nomination of Dr. Joycelyn Elders to be surgeon general, Mitchell said. "There's no doubt in my mind" that she will be approved despite opposition of conservative GOP senators, he added.

Final congressional approval also is expected next week on Clinton's national service plan, which has some Republican backing in both the House and Senate. The proposal would put American youth to work in public service jobs in exchange for stipends toward their college educations.

Bipartisan support also is expected on the defense authorization bill--with its compromise provisions on allowing gays to serve in the military--when that legislation is taken up by Congress later this month.

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