WASHINGTON -- The broken-down 103rd Congress headed home yesterday to explain itself to voters after Senate Democrats claimed a last, sweet victory that might help at least one of their number in a dicey re-election bid.
On its last roll call before adjourning, the Senate voted 68-23 to finally halt a Republican filibuster that had been blocking for weeks approval of a popular measure aimed at protecting 6.6 million acres of California desert.
President Clinton called the desert bill vote yesterday "a clear-cut victory" not only for Californians, but "everyone who cares about this nation's natural resources."
The House had overwhelmingly approved the measure before its members left Washington for home early yesterday morning.
Enactment of the California Desert Protection Act -- the only major environmental bill to be sent to President Clinton's desk during this two-year term of Congress -- was a triumph of determination for its chief sponsor, freshman Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.
Republicans in both the House and Senate had tried to kill the bill with delaying tactics because they feared it might help Mrs. Feinstein in her re-election battle with GOP Rep. Michael Huffington.
"It became very political: deny Dianne Feinstein a victory in the short time before the election," the senator told reporters after the vote yesterday.
Critics of the legislation, led by Sen. Malcolm Wallop, a Wyoming Republican, called it part of the federal government's "war on the West."
"What we're doing is taking a vast piece of land off the map," VTC complained Sen. Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican.
Although approval of the bill had been expected, there was a little last-minute drama when Illinois Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun, who cast the deciding vote to end the filibuster, arrived late, reportedly because she had trouble getting her electronic garage door opener to work.
"We were caught in a squeeze play here," said Debbie Sease, chief lobbyist for the Sierra Club.
"The political stakes earned us Republican opposition we wouldn't have otherwise had, but it also made the Democrats want to fight all the harder."
The Democrats' success on the measure, which ultimately passed by voice vote, also provided a psychological boost for the dispirited majority party after weeks of watching most of its legislative agenda crash and burn in the face of GOP resistance.
Health care reform, new campaign finance restrictions, an update of lobbyist disclosure laws, regulation of the telecommunications industry and a host of other Democratic initiatives all died before they could even reach a final vote.
The Republican strategy was to make the Democratic-led Congress look like a failure with just over four weeks to go before the Nov. 8 midterm elections.
Republican candidates are favored to win in a number of close races, and the GOP hopes to gain control of both the House and Senate next year.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine, who is retiring from the Congress this year after a final session that included many personal disappointments, had vowed in a last exercise of his limited power to hold his colleagues in Washington until the California desert bill was passed.
The failures of nearly a dozen other significant environmental bills this year -- including updates of the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Superfund hazardous waste program and wetlands protection act -- stand witness to the charred landscape left behind by the partisan feuding in this Congress. Most of the bills were blocked by Republicans.
"The Congress had the potential to do more for the environment than any Congress since Earth Day" in 1970, said Ms. Sease of the Sierra Club. "Instead, it did less for the environment than any Congress since Earth Day."
The House and Senate are scheduled to return after Thanksgiving for the first lame-duck session in a dozen years, to consider ratification of a world trade agreement.
But that looming bit of unfinished business only made their pre-election departure more quarrelsome.
In summing up the congressional term yesterday, Mr. Mitchell said it was revealing "that, on this final day of the session, we had before us four filibusters" -- including three on nominations -- that were also broken.
"We had some failures, but we also had some successes," he added, noting in particular last year's controversial economic reform program, which is now being used to club Democrats who voted for tax increases.
"I hope that, with benefit of time and perspective, Americans will come to realize" the budget measure "set the nation on a new and better course."
Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas countered: "The ultimate judges of the record of this Congress and the Clinton administration these past two years are the American people. And they do not believe that we have changed America for the better."