Laden with defeat, Congress collapses


WASHINGTON -- Less than five weeks before the midterm elections, the Congress that arrived here promising an era of can-do Democratic-led government is about to adjourn, leaving a landscape littered with its legislative defeats.

After a heady first year of successes, the 103rd Congress has collapsed, rendered dysfunctional by its partisan feuding. The latest casualty was a lobbying reform bill -- the last survivor of a package of reform measures -- that succumbed yesterday to a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Frustrated, the chief sponsor, Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, asserted that the Republican strategy is "to stop Congress from doing anything significant."

Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who said he found many new objections to the lobby reform measure that he had supported last year, said: "If you're looking to us to plead inconsistency: yes. . . . Obstructionism in the defense of liberty is no vice."

President Clinton and the majority-party Democrats effectively lost control of Congress this week, when obstructionism by Republicans -- aided at times by some Democrats -- killed most of the remaining items on the Clinton agenda: campaign financing reform, the overhaul of the Superfund for hazardous waste, mining reform, extension of the Safe Drinking Water Act and new regulation of the telecommunications industry.

Action on the GATT world trade agreement, which most Republicans favor, was delayed until a "lame-duck" session after the elections.

But this is just the close of an extraordinary scorched-earth policy by the Republicans, who have been calling most of the shots on Capitol Hill since August. Their first moves were to take the crime bill hostage in the House and then to help kill Mr. Clinton's most prized project, an overhaul of the health care system.

"It's crazy in terms of good public policy: The Republicans are for GATT, yet they put it off," said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. "But the Republicans smell blood, and they think they will be much stronger after the elections."

Republicans have been fantasizing about the Nov. 8 elections since Mr. Clinton's poll numbers began to sink early this summer. They need just seven seats to gain a majority in the Senate and appear to be within reach of that goal.

Few expect the Republicans to also gain the 40 seats that would give them control of the House for the first time since 1954. But Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia has been invoking that tantalizing image to keep his troops in line.

'Pure obstructionism'

On Tuesday, House Republicans forced 12 procedural votes, which passed overwhelmingly, in hopes of dooming a bill that would protect hundreds of acres of California desert and give the Democrats a political plum to take home to voters.

"It's pure obstructionism," said Rep. Al Swift, a Washington state Democrat.

The Republicans shattered all Senate precedent last month when they expanded their filibusters beyond substantive issues to procedural questions, such as the appointment of committees to discuss legislative differences with the House.

"There's nothing subtle about it," Mr. Swift said of the tactics of Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas. "He must think no one but the Democrats is going to get blamed."

"Most people I've talked to are glad the Republicans killed the Clinton health care bill," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Republican. "We can do a much better job next year when we have a Republican majority."

Meanwhile, Ross Perot, the erstwhile presidential candidate who caused so much trouble for the Republicans in 1992, is adding his own brand of mischief, by urging voters this year to throw their support to Republican candidates.

The Democrats -- who had taken office in January 1993 with such bright hopes -- are mostly disappointed, dispirited and defensive.

"It's been like a roller-coaster ride, with some very high moments and some very low moments," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat. Now, he says, his colleagues are just eager to get home to figure out how best to explain their mixed performance to voters.

When they began their term, congressional Democrats had embraced Mr. Clinton's ambitious agenda of economic reform, political reform, overhaul of health care and an end to "welfare as we know it."

After 12 years of Republicans in the White House, Democrats also had a backlog of vetoed legislation. Aided by a 25 percent turnover in Congress that swelled the ranks of women and blacks, the Democratic majority quickly started pumping out new laws.

They provided for handgun control, workers' leave, expanded abortion rights, more money for research into women's diseases, tax breaks for the working poor, a national voter registration act and a national service program for young people.

Approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which dropped trade barriers from Canada through Mexico, capped a first session that led Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine to predict that the 103rd Congress would "go down in history as one of the most productive in modern times."

But Mr. Clinton, who was elected with only 43 percent of the vote and too few Democrats in Congress to provide him with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, lacked the political mandate to bring off his entire agenda. Congress failed to reach any consensus on health care reform. Welfare reform never got off the drawing board.

Much of the president's political capital was spent on a deficit-cutting package that represents by far the most important accomplishment of the 103rd Congress but appears to be costing his party dearly.

Congress set rigid spending limits that gradually lower the actual amount of federal spending on most programs with each passing year. Income taxes were raised on the very rich and lowered on the working poor. Gasoline taxes went up for everybody by 4 1/2 cents a gallon.

Financial markets were so reassured by the budget package, which passed by one vote in the House and Vice President Al Gore's tie-breaking vote in the Senate, that interest rates dropped and the economy settled into a period of sustained growth.

But Mr. Clinton seems to be getting no credit in the polls for the healthy economy.

Special-interest advocates among the Democratic caucus point to many successes on women's issues, minority concerns and gun control.

Pleased with session

"I'm very pleased with this session," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer of New York, a gun-control activist who saw the enactment of both the Brady bill to limit handgun purchases and a ban on assault weapons included in the crime bill enacted last summer.

Mr. Mitchell, who is retiring from the Senate, and House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, who faces an uphill battle in Washington state for re-election, insist that the record of the 103rd Congress remains a proud one. But moderate Democrats and Republicans argue that those leaders steered Mr. Clinton down too liberal a path in a Congress where Republicans hold effective veto power in the Senate.

"He missed the opportunity to capture the imagination of the American people by seeking a new political alignment," said Paul Hewitt, executive director of the National Taxpayers Union. "It's such a precious commodity: that moment every president has to present a clean slate. When it's gone, it's a sad thing."

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