Congress returns from its summer recess this week to a world turned upside down and the legislative agenda scrambled in the process. Democratic plans to put the spotlight on domestic issues will have to make way for the overriding question of how much aid the United States should provide the Soviet Union -- and in what form. In this arena, President Bush is in his element while his congressional opposition is distracted and divided.
Yet even the demise of Soviet Communism will not deflect Senate confirmation hearings on Judge Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, Robert M. Gates for the Central Intelligence Agency and William Taylor for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Each of these nominations brings explosive political controversy to the fore: civil rights and abortion in the case of Mr. Thomas, the Iran-contra affair and what the CIA chief-designate knew about it in the case of Mr. Gates and the administration's record in the BCCI scandal in the case of Mr. Taylor.
So far as must-pass legislation is concerned, however, the congressional agenda is really limited to the enactment of the 10 remaining appropriation bills and a measure to replenish the FDIC's Bank Insurance Fund, a key ingredient in a banking overhaul measure that may prove to be the most substantive legislation of the year. There is plenty more in the hopper, but there is doubt whether a Republican presidency and a Democratic Congress can find much to agree about as they prepare for battle in the 1992 elections.
If there is to be a pervasive political litmus test, it probably will have to do with the fate of the 1990 budget agreement placing non-transferable spending caps on defense, foreign aid and domestic programs. Democrats feel trapped by the three-year pact and show signs of wanting to break it, either directly or by legerdemain. One flashpoint will be extension of unemployment benefits, a $5.2 billion budget-buster in the president's opinion and a debt owed jobless workers, according to his opponents.
This bread-and-butter battle was to be expected; what was unforeseen was the impact of the Soviet crisis on the budget agreement. Suddenly, some Democrats want to tap the Pentagon's portion for emergency humanitarian aid to the Soviet people, or for debt reduction, or for domestic spending, the argument being that Moscow is no longer a credible threat. Mr. Bush has raised the tantalizing prospect of a real strategic restructuring but has yet to show his hand on its fiscal aspects.
Among other issues Congress should address, we would put priority on health care insurance, civil rights, transportation and handgun control. Arms control accords to reduce strategic weapons and limit conventional forces in Europe can be postponed until the Soviet situation clarifies.
History's verdict on the 102nd Congress, despite a lackluster record so far, cannot be measured until it has a chance to respond to Russia's revolution, one of the seminal events of the century.