WASHINGTON -- The top priority for the Republican-led Congress when it returns to work tomorrow will be devising an exit strategy to adjourn for the year while yielding as little as possible to the demands of President Clinton and the Democrats.
Republican leaders see little chance of striking a deal with the president on tax cuts after he exercises his promised veto of their $792 billion tax cut bill this month. Many Republicans seem content to wait to fight that issue in next year's elections.
Other major items on Congress' fall agenda -- including gun control, managed health care and campaign finance reform -- are important mostly to Democrats and appear to have little chance of resolution before the 2000 elections.
The only task that Congress must complete before quitting for the year is to pass the spending bills that finance the government. But Republicans are having great trouble fitting their spending proposals within the budget ceilings adopted by Congress in 1997.
Some bargain will likely have to be made with Clinton to raise the ceilings -- or dip into the Social Security surplus -- if Republicans are to avoid the political calamity of a government shutdown.
Since the 1995 shutdown, Republicans have been at a disadvantage in budget talks with the president. The public largely blamed Republicans for the fiasco that occurred after Clinton vetoed their spending bills, saying he objected to deep cuts in his proposals for social programs, and the federal government shut down because money had not been allocated to run it.
Last year, when the Republicans delayed action on spending bills until just before midterm elections, Clinton was able to extract $21 billion more for pet programs as his price for signing the legislation that would let members of Congress leave town to campaign.
Despite their vows that this year would be different, Republican leaders are in almost the same spot as last fall. Only two of 13 spending bills have passed both houses; conflicts remain between House and Senate versions of nine others.
The two largest spending measures, which pay for the most popular social programs, have not been adopted. And there's not enough money to pay for them within the budget caps without making cuts so deep that even many Republicans would back away.
That puts Clinton again in a commanding position to demand a steep price for letting the Republicans adjourn for the year.
"I'm very pessimistic," said Stephen A. Moore, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute. "I think he's going to be able to hold them up for another $25 billion or $30 billion."
That price may seem relatively cheap in the context of a budget surplus, including Social Security money, that is projected to hit nearly $3 trillion over 10 years. But that projection assumes that Congress will abide by its 1997 spending ceilings and keep its promise to preserve the Social Security portion, which represents about two-thirds of the surplus.
Marshall Wittmann, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, predicted that Republican leaders would try to postpone final action on the spending bills by passing a series of stopgap measures to keep the government running at this year's spending levels -- perhaps until a bonanza of new tax revenue from the booming economy arrives to rescue them.
"The problem is that at some point the president isn't going to let them get away with that," Wittmann said. "He still has enormous leverage."
At the White House, the strategy is to sit back and watch Republicans squirm. Clinton aides argue that the president has already offered his spending plan. If the Republicans don't like Clinton's budget, the White House says, it's their duty to produce an alternative that fits within the spending caps.
Perhaps if it struggles enough, White House aides say, the GOP-led Congress might reconsider Clinton money-raising proposals -- particularly a 55-cents-a-pack tax increase on cigarettes, which would produce about $8 billion a year.
"It's not time to negotiate," said Maria Echaveste, a deputy White House chief of staff.
When the time for negotiation on the spending bills finally comes, perhaps late this fall, the result might include a tax cut far smaller than the one the Republicans want, combined with a prescription drug program for Medicare recipients that Clinton and the Democrats favor. But factions of both parties hope the debate over the use of the surplus ends in stalemate, because they believe any sizable tax cut or spending increase would be unwise.
"Certainly among economists you find the view that the best thing for the economy is no deal at all, because it means the surplus would be put aside to pay down the debt," said Robert Greenstein of the liberal Center for Budget and Fiscal Policy.
Other topics will also grab their share of time and attention on Capitol Hill this fall.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, has pledged to allow votes on managed-care legislation and campaign finance reform. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi has promised time for campaign finance legislation and has won Senate passage of a Republican version of the Democrats' "Patients' Bill of Rights."
Further, the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary committees have vowed to forge a compromise between competing versions of a juvenile justice bill that has been a vehicle for gun control provisions.
Yet on each of those issues, the differences seem too great to bridge, given the outright opposition to such legislation from top Republican leaders.
"A lot of bills will be brought up," House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas said last week in describing his hands-off approach to these items. "They'll be given time for consideration, and the House will work its will."
Republicans are much more enthusiastic about the prospect of investigating alleged misdeeds by the Clinton administration, particularly the recent disclosure that the FBI, contrary to its long-standing denials, fired pyrotechnic tear-gas devices in its assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, six years ago.
Several committees have scheduled hearings on the new revelations, and Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Illinois Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, has called for the creation of a bipartisan House-Senate commission to investigate the Justice Department's handling of Waco. Such an investigation is likely to increase partisan tensions on Capitol Hill.
Divided government has already taken a toll on congressional productivity this year. Congress got off to a slow start on legislative business after devoting the first six weeks of the year to Clinton's impeachment trial.
Since then, the Republicans' slender six-vote edge in the House, and the filibuster power of the Senate Democratic minority, have blocked progress.
Only three major bills have passed: one to limit liability for companies and individuals from Y2K computer glitches; another calling for development of a missile defense system as soon as technologically possible; and a third to provide emergency spending for Kosovo and other military needs.
Republicans had hoped for a richer record of achievement. Yet there's been no clamor for action from voters, who are enjoying one of the most prosperous periods in the nation's history.
"Democrats are sure to call this a do-nothing Congress, but voters might decide that's not such a bad thing," said Moore of the Cato Institute. "After 16 years in Washington, I'm finding people are less focused on what goes on here than I can ever remember. They just aren't turning to Washington for help."
Pub Date: 9/07/99