Testing Congressional Leadership


Congress came back from its July 4 recess this week to begin what could be its most partisan and contentious month of its two-year session. This 103rd Congress has been relatively productive so far, thanks to having both chambers controlled by the same party that controls the White House for the first time in 12 years. But the Clinton administration's centerpiece legislation health-care reform, and if it doesn't get enacted, the first two years of "the end of gridlock" will be deemed a failure, or at least unsuccessful.

Time is running out on health care, as well as for two other important pieces of legislation, the crime bill and campaign finance reform.

Neither is a substantive landmark, but the crime bill could help states and localities. Republicans are being hard-nosed about a provision that would let death penalty defendants use racial statistics to show racial bias. Yesterday, the White House signaled it would abandon that language to save other sections of the bill. Rep. Kweisi Mfume said he would fight to keep the sentencing provisions. We think he's right, particularly since there isn't enough money to pay for the other sections of the bill, anyway. Mr. Mfume and the Black Caucus should make it clear their price for a compromise is full funding for aid to strapped police forces, especially in crime-ridden big cities.

There is also a party dividing line on campaign finance reforms. Recently there has been some sign of compromise on limiting ZTC political action committee donations. This is not as important an issue as some politicians make it out to be, but the president and congressional leaders of both parties have invested so much time and attention in it that they need to agree.

Health care, crime and political reform are going to be central themes in the 1994 congressional elections. Those three and, indirectly maybe, Whitewater. Debate on legislation in late July and early August (Congress will then take a summer recess) will occur with House and Senate Whitewater committee hearings under way. The hearings should be even more partisan than the legislative debates.

All this will make accomplishments in the next four weeks difficult and maybe even impossible. And what doesn't get done (or at least agreed upon) by mid-August will face even greater obstacles after Labor Day, when Congress is scheduled to meet for only one more month -- a month during which many senators and many, many representatives will be preoccupied with campaigning. A real test of Democratic leadership on the Hill looms. Can it deliver? A real test of Republican leadership looms, too. Can it only oppose?

We hope the answers to those questions are, respectively, "yes" and "no."

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