WASHINGTON — It's fish-or-cut-bait time on Capitol Hill.
With the 1998 elections looming, the capital's masterminds must decide in the next few weeks whether to choose compromise over ideology and rack up more legislative accomplishments before facing the voters.
That's what happened two years ago on the eve of the 1996 elections when congressional Republicans and President Clinton suddenly produced a flood of major bills, including welfare reform, expanded health insurance and a minimum wage hike.
What's at stake now is whether the American people will get a tax cut, win new rights in dealing with health maintenance organizations, get additional aid for their children's education or see a new drive to combat teen smoking.
But with only about nine working weeks left in this congressional session, most major initiatives in tax, education and health policy are stalled by partisan gridlock or intraparty divisions.
Republican lawmakers so far have seemed largely content to coast to reelection without adding much to Congress' list of accomplishments. They figure that they already have done plenty--and that a nation dazzled by prosperity and by Mark McGwire's home runs would hardly notice anyway.
But some Republican strategists fear that their party's fragile hold on the House may be at risk this fall if the GOP does not produce legislation to counter what is emerging as a central Democratic campaign theme: that Republicans are blocking important legislation at the bidding of special interests, such as the tobacco industry and health maintenance organizations.
"Democrats want to nationalize the election around the idea that the Republican Party is a pro-HMO, pro-tobacco, anti-minimum wage party," said GOP pollster Bill McInturff. "There is enough juice in that message to put the House seriously in play."
House Republicans tried to blunt Democratic criticism before sending their members home for a two-week Independence Day recess by unveiling their own stripped down proposals to crack down on teen smoking and to impose new restrictions on HMOs.
Democrats pooh-poohed those measures as mere fig leaves to obscure GOP responsibility for killing a more far-reaching anti-tobacco bill and for blocking votes on Democratic HMO legislation. But Republicans seem confident that passing even stripped-down bills on the tobacco and HMO issues would be enough to counter the political potential of those matters this fall.
McInturff said that if Democrats can fault Republicans only for not doing enough, rather than for doing nothing, "I don't think that's a debate strong enough to carry Democratic control of [the House]."
Clinton threw down the gauntlet last week for the coming legislative battles, challenging Congress to come to the table to work on a variety of subjects.
"Congress has a choice to make in writing this chapter of our history," Clinton said. "It can choose partisanship or it can choose progress."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), testy about suggestions that this is a do-nothing Congress, responded that Republicans already have accomplished quite a lot: a balanced-budget accord, expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, restructuring of the Internal Revenue Service.
Republicans also recently sought to resurrect two items of unfinished business from the party's 1994 "contract with America" campaign manifesto: a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration and a new compromise bill to limit product liability lawsuits against small businesses.
The flag amendment has passed the House and appears to have a strong chance of clearing the Senate this year. But GOP leaders were left fuming last week when the product liability bill stalled after Democrats threatened to offer their HMO-reform bill as an amendment. The measure now appears dead in this session.
In a sign of how sensitive the GOP is growing to the "do-nothing" charges being hurled at it, Lott devoted the Republican radio address Saturday to detailing GOP accomplishments and pinning the blame for gridlock on Clinton and Senate Democrats.
"Senate Democrats [have started] to s-l-o-w things down: dragging out debate, using procedural objections to stop progress, postponing action . . . all the while crying crocodile tears about a do-nothing Congress," Lott said. "And the downbeat for the slowdown has been set by the president himself."
While each side blames the other for failing to cooperate, analysts said that the entire political and economic climate is now less conducive to compromise on major legislation than it was two years ago.