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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Lame-Duck Congress Is Returning

Legislation: House and Senate set postelection sessions that are expected to deal with key spending bills. But other major issues are unlikely to be resolved.

November 11, 2000|NICK ANDERSON and RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Less than two weeks after its leaders opted to take a timeout to let partisan passions cool, Congress is scheduled to return next week for an unusual postelection session--even as the unresolved presidential race threatens to stoke those passions hotter than ever.

The unfinished business facing the lame-duck 106th Congress includes five vital spending bills to keep the departments of Education, Commerce, Labor, Treasury, Justice and State, as well as Congress and the White House, running in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

Whether the House and Senate will be able to resolve those and other key issues--a minimum-wage increase, tax breaks, immigration reform and worker safety--is now unclear.

It is entirely likely, though, that Capitol Hill will become another venue for inflammatory political invective as hundreds of lawmakers and lawmakers-elect fly to Washington. The House is to convene on Monday and the Senate on Tuesday.

Republicans sought this week to negotiate an extension to the truce in the budget battle that would delay final action until after Thanksgiving. But key Democrats rebuffed those overtures, according to congressional aides.

Gephardt Makes Call to Hastert

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), the House minority leader, said in a news conference Friday that he sees no reason why Congress cannot finish its work before Thanksgiving.

"We will work with the other side to get things done," Gephardt said. He added that he called House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) the day after the election in an attempt to build bridges after the Democrats' failure to retake the House. It was said to be the first time in months that the two House leaders had spoken.

Behind the calculus of both parties lies the presidential election dispute. If Texas Gov. George W. Bush is declared president-elect, the slender GOP majorities in the House and Senate would have more negotiating leverage. If Vice President Al Gore wins, it would be a huge boost to congressional Democrats.

As it is, only eight of 13 annual spending bills for fiscal 2001 have been enacted. But an upcoming trip by President Clinton also could interfere with the completion of the budget. Clinton is planning to leave Sunday for Brunei and Vietnam. His scheduled return is Nov. 20.

White House spokesman Elliot Diringer said that the administration would be willing to agree to a stopgap spending bill to keep the government running while Clinton is out of the country. So far, more than a dozen such bills, known as continuing resolutions, have been enacted for fiscal 2001 as Congress has stalled in wrapping up the $1.8-trillion federal budget. The current resolution runs through midnight Tuesday.

"We [would] do that with the understanding that Congress is going to stay in town and work," Diringer said. He said that the president wants to see the budget wrapped up by Thanksgiving. "Hopefully, the desire to adjourn by the holiday will provide plenty of incentive to get the work done."

A House GOP leadership aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Republican leaders will determine their strategy after coming back to Washington on Sunday.

Aside from the ongoing budget battle, House members are due back next week for another important reason: to choose their party leaders. The top Republican lineup of Hastert and Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas and Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas is not expected to change, given that the GOP preserved its majority in Tuesday's elections--now projected to be 221 to 212. One or two victories on either side could still be reversed before final returns are certified.

Gephardt is seeking reelection as minority leader, a post he has held since the Republicans took over Congress nearly six years ago. His top lieutenant, Minority Whip David E. Bonior of Michigan, also would like to retain his post. It is not clear yet whether some rank-and-file Democrats will demand a leadership change in the wake of Tuesday's results.

Also expected next week is the arrival of newly elected House members. Although they do not take office until January, they will vote on party leaders and attend orientation sessions.

Senate leadership elections are not expected until next month.

Presidential Drama Shifting to Capitol

The House and Senate floors are likely to become another theater in the ongoing battle over the presidential election. And if lawmakers are not sounding off in short floor speeches, they certainly will do so in multitudes of press conferences for reporters hungering for news.

Aware of this likelihood, one Republican leadership aide lamented that in the current political climate "it doesn't help anybody, not the Bush camp, not the Gore camp, not Congress," for lawmakers to meet in an environment that could make partisan fire more intense.

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