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Congress Braces for a Legislative Battle

Politics: With less than a week to go before adjourning, lawmakers must pass an avalanche of bills. They hope to avert a government shutdown.


WASHINGTON — If you think you have seen all you can stand of congressional gridlock, bipartisan bickering and nasty politics, brace yourself for a possible rerun.

Congress has less than a week--and 11 appropriations bills to pass--before it is scheduled to adjourn for the year, and warnings of a 1995-style government shutdown are in the air. Republicans and Democrats already have begun blaming each other for such an impasse. President Clinton has threatened to veto at least seven of the money bills. And GOP leaders are facing a split in their own party.

Although few analysts believe a shutdown is likely, the odds are growing that lawmakers will be forced to enact a huge continuing resolution, or CR--a stopgap spending bill that keeps the government running at last year's levels--and stay in session an extra week to pass it.

Even then, there is little prospect that the battling will be put aside. If anything, congressional observers say, the infighting over hidden riders and partisan provisions is likely to be more intense than if the money bills were considered one by one.

Carol Wait, head of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said the cat fight reflects the usual congressional procrastination, intensified by election-year testiness and the fact that for the first time in 29 years, there is a budget surplus to give away.

"What's really going on here is that the Democrats want to spend the surplus on social programs, and the Republicans want to give it back in tax cuts," Wait said. "I, for one, have become a real fan of gridlock. The best thing they could do is pass a CR and just go home."

In addition to the fight over the surplus, there are numerous partisan differences over specific policies and programs, said Robert D. Reischauer, a budget watcher at the Brookings Institution think tank.

Republicans, for example, deliberately have provided far less than Clinton has requested on a spate of domestic spending programs, from education to housing. And they have tacked on dozens of riders mandating hard-line GOP positions on abortion and environmental issues.

At the same time, Wait's group points out that the White House has requested about $23 billion more in spending than Congress' fiscal 1999 limits would allow, including $9 billion that was to have been offset by higher tobacco taxes that will not be enacted after all.

Both sides also have had their own political problems.

On one hand, Clinton's veto threats have been vitiated by the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, which has blunted some of the president's political influence in Congress, particularly among rank-and-file Democrats.

On Friday, House members overwhelmingly approved a compromise Agriculture Department appropriations bill that the president had threatened to veto. The tally was a veto-proof 333 to 53, including 153 Democrats. The Senate takes up the measure this week.

On the other hand, GOP leaders have been frustrated by a split within their own ranks, with Republican conservatives derailing efforts by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to push the appropriations bills through in an orderly fashion.

Last week, for example, conservative Republicans in the House balked at voting on a leadership-backed money bill for the Treasury Department and other agencies because it would have expanded insurance coverage of federal employees for prescription contraceptives.

Democrats voted to keep the measure off the House floor for another reason: It would have forced the firing of two top staffers at the Federal Election Commission who have angered Republicans by investigating GOP fund-raising activities.

What happens next is anyone's guess. Both sides are warning that if the logjam continues, it may force the president to shut the government down, as he did in late 1995 and early 1996. The new fiscal year began Thursday, and the temporary spending authority now in effect expires next Friday.

Both parties are insisting they will not permit the situation to go that far. As Republicans learned to their regret, the 1995-96 shutdown debacle sparked an angry public backlash that left GOP lawmakers scrambling to dodge the blame.

Republicans "absolutely" will give the president "no excuse to close the government," Gingrich vowed at the end of last week. Republicans "are going to get our work done" in passing the appropriations bills promptly.

But as Reischauer points out, for all the leadership's insistence, rank-and-file GOP lawmakers "keep walking toward the cliff" by balking at taking up conference committee compromise bills, leaving open the possibility that a shutdown could come after all.

Whether Clinton could turn that to his advantage this time around still is uncertain, but analysts say the likelihood is that it would be to neither side's good. The public already is tired of the conflict, Reischauer says.

More likely, budget watchers say, is that lawmakers will run out of time and be forced to enact the giant continuing resolution that effectively would replace some eight or so major appropriations bills, provided they can keep them free of partisan riders and add-ons.

Lawmakers also must agree to scuttle a spate of high-profile bills that seem unlikely to pass but which will be difficult politically to bury: the Democrats' "patients' bill of rights" measure and the GOP's tax-cut bill, for example.

And they have to decide, finally, whether to provide Clinton with the full $18-billion line of credit that he has requested to bolster the lending resources of the International Monetary Fund. The House has refused to OK more than $3.8 billion of that.

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