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Senate Democrats take bit in their teeth. New majority hits ground running, as leader Byrd promised

Back in the majority after six years under Republican domination, Senate Democrats are scrambling to make up for lost time. The usually somnolent weeks in January before the President's State of the Union address have been marked by almost frantic activity. Wednesday morning was typical: In the Dirksen Office Building, Senate Appropriations Committee members were grilling White House Budget Director James M. Miller III on the President's federal spending proposal for the next fiscal year. Across the street in the Russell Office Building, the Armed Services Committee was plowing ahead with its sweeping reassessment of US ``national-security strategy.''

In the Capitol, Foreign Relations Committee members were continuing with a dissection of the Reagan administration's Iranian policy. On the other side of the Hill, legislators from both chambers of Congress held a pow-wow on the problems of US trade policy and industrial competitiveness. Meanwhile, the Senate prepared to pass the Clean Water Act, which President Reagan vetoed last year.

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``It isn't business as usual,'' said Senate majority leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia.

``We want to show we can run this ship better than the Republicans,'' says Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois.

``After six years in the minority, we've got all kinds of bills and initiatives just pent up,'' says Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio. Thus, the Democrats have unleashed a barrage of hearings. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee just finished a series of sessions on the direction of US foreign policy. It is also having hearings on US policy toward Iran and is preparing for a set of hearings on aid to the Nicaraguan contras. Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia has planned at least 13 sessions on national security. And the Budget Committee will spend at least five weeks plowing through the White House budget proposal. The Finance Committee recently wrapped up two weeks of hearings on trade policy. And Commerce Committee chairman Ernest F. Hollings (D) of South Carolina says he will hold hearings on US industrial competitiveness overseas.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, new chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, is attempting to use his position to influence debate on a vast array of issues. Already he has launched a series of hearings on ``national goals'' that will encompass unemployment, education, AIDS, the welfare system, and the Soviet nuclear accident at Chernobyl.

Just after the Democrats regained the Senate majority in November, Senator Byrd promised that they would ``hit the ground running'' in January - with legislative initiatives of their own, rather than waiting to react to White House proposals. And, obviously, a Democratic Senate would work in concert with the Democratic House.

But Congress has been imbued, in part, with an urgency that has little to do with party control of the Senate. The pace has been accelerated by the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction law, which required the White House to send its budget to Capitol Hill on Jan. 5, a month earlier than usual. The House and Senate budget committees thus swung into action this month, rather than in February.

The 1988 presidential election has also sharpened the political tone on the Hill. Both parties are angling for the advantage. So are individuals. Senate minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas will win points with conservatives who control his party's presidential nominating process, the argument goes, if he takes conservative stands in the Senate. On the other side, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, presidential hopeful Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware has an excellent platform to confront the administration on a variety of philosophical issues.

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The consuming concern over the Iran-contra controversy has also flavored the first weeks of the 100th Congress, with hearings by special Watergate-style committees likely to continue through Labor Day. White House opponents expect President Reagan's influence to wane over the next two years, especially in light of the Iran-contra affair. So far, however, partisan rancor has been the exception rather than the rule. Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have tiptoed around the Iran-contra controversy partly out of fear they will be accused of seeking partisan gain. The Clean Water Act passed the House and Senate with broad support on both sides of the aisle.

The trade bill, which was successfully opposed by the administration last year, could become the basis for this year's partisan slugfest.

Still, some Democrats worry that the bitterest squabbling could come from within party ranks. The majority party, though controlling both chambers of Congress, is led by such disparate personalities as conservative Senator Nunn and the liberal Senator Kennedy. So the emerging challenge for Democrats could be to keep their differences from becoming divisions.

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