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A hill without a summit


The executive branch of government -- personified in this instance by Boris Yeltsin, George Bush and Bill Clinton -- succeeded during the course of the Washington summit in reducing the legislative branch -- in this case the U.S. Congress -- to cheerleading and pettifoggery.

With partisanship holding sway as usual, lawmakers succeeded in delaying passage of a measure unlocking a $24 billion Western aid package for former Soviet states until after the Russian president was out of the country. Yet members of Congress were so wowed by Mr. Yeltsin's speech on Capitol Hill attacking communism and promising nuclear arms cuts that passage became a sure thing. Many lawmakers seemed relieved that the Yeltsin performance made it easier for them to vote for foreign aid despite a recession that has focused American opinion on domestic needs.

The outlook now is that Congress will first adopt a $1.3 billion urban assistance bill to provide for summer jobs and the post-riot requirements of Los Angeles just before giving approval to legislation increasing the U.S. commitment to the International Monetary Fund by $12 billion. This is supposed to represent some kind of Democratic victory.

That executive power creates a do-something mindset that is different from legislative skepticism and maneuver was inadvertently underscored by prospective Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton, who met yesterday with Mr. Yeltsin. Afterward, Governor Clinton said he would try to convince his fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill that quick passage of the Russian aid package would be a good thing. "I think we have a very great interest in seeing that [Russia's] experiment with democracy succeeds and becomes permanent and irreversible," he said, thus stating the obvious to everyone except the nose-counters on Capitol Hill.

One is left wondering why Congress is so bereft of leadership, why it is so vulnerable to passing spectacle and emotion, why its various factions feel it necessary to grapple with one another like so many sumi wrestlers when three rounds of lightweight boxing and a quick decision would do.

National interests are palpably served both by aid to troubled cities at home and the fledgling Russian democracy abroad. But Capitol Hill partisans, though they had justifiable complaints about White House wobbling and bickering, especially over the size of the urban aid plan, could not resist the chance to engage in the old game of linkage, tradeoffs and political posturing. Too bad.

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