WASHINGTON -- Congress will begin returning from its recess today to find the central campaign promise of Republicans -- to erase the federal deficit by 2002 -- due and payable on demand.
Just as the pollster-driven issues of the "Contract With America" dominated the euphoric winter, that single promise will hang over the Capitol like a black thunderhead.
That is a problem for both parties. But for the Republicans, who so far have voted mainly on issues chosen by pollsters, the peril could not be greater.
In the winter, legislators queued up behind the popular but abstract concept of requiring a balanced federal budget. Now, they will vote on the real thing: at least $1 trillion in spending reductions over seven years, crimping actual services popular with actual voters.
In the winter, Republicans endorsed big tax breaks -- $360 billion over seven years in the House of Representatives bill -- for families, investors and corporations. Now, should the tax cuts become law, they will have to vote to cut spending bymore than $1 trillion to pay for them.
In the winter, the House voted to hand retirees a Social Security tax cut. Now, it must decide whether to risk the rage of those same retirees by clamping controls on the runaway cost of Medicare. The unpleasant alternative is to break the balanced-budget promise, because the deficit will balloon VTC endlessly unless Medicare costs are reined in.
In the winter, both parties competed to overhaul a welfare system that many middle-class voters regard as a waste of tax dollars. Now, they likely will vote on an overhaul of Medicaid -- a program whose own runaway costs not only subsidize the poor but also allow middle-class families to escape the full cost of nursing homes for frail parents.
Congress will try to inflict this unpleasantness, and more, while the Republican leader of the Senate is running full-bore for the presidency and while three of his colleagues, running for the same office, are trying to thwart him.
Meanwhile, the incumbent president will use his veto and other considerable powers against his potential challengers.
Legislators are also committed to completing the overhaul of welfare begun by the House, voting again on term limits, finishing work on a controversial anti-crime bill and rewriting the rules of civil liability law.
"The question is what can be done politically," said Stanley Collender, the federal budget expert for the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse. "You're talking about some things that were unimaginable three or four years ago."
But not now. Next week Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici of New Mexico will unveil a budget resolution that orders Senate committees to reduce spending by a total of $1 trillion over seven years. House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich of Ohio will issue a similar resolution in May.
Mr. Kasich's aides are mum on his proposal, but as House Speaker Newt Gingrich has ordered, it will propose to balance the budget and give voters a hefty tax break, too.
Mr. Domenici, an ally of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, touts his resolution as moderate, honest and fiscally doable.