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Congress moves on social policy. But lack of funds, paucity of proposals, and growing rift between left and right may stymie major reform

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Congress is acting with surprising speed on its domestic policy agenda. For example, a bill to give $500 million to help the homeless, which is now in committee, could be before the full House before day's end.

Moving such a sizable proposal as this so quickly early in the session is usual. But it is part of a recent flurry of activity on domestic social legislation in the halls of Congress. A series of bills has been introduced and a steady stream of publicized hearings held, on issues ranging from homelessness to welfare reform to long-term medical care.

Does this movement mean 1987 will be the year that Congress, with Democrats controlling both houses, finally passes a great deal of major legislation reforming current social laws?

Perhaps. But many experts say it is unlikely. ``All in all,'' says Gilbert Y. Steiner of the Brookings Institution, ``there's going to be less than we might have anticipated, given the strong results of November's election.''

He cites two reasons: too little money, too few ideas. ``Certainly the question of no money to spend has scared off a whole lot of reformers. ... Add to that a relative paucity of new ideas, and you don't come out with a whole lot.''

Other experts offer additional reasons. They note that no broad agreement exists, in Congress or out, on programs that would be dramatically better than some of today's most controversial ones, such as welfare. They add that liberals and conservatives so distrust each other that, on many issues, each is concerned that any change would be for the worse, and thus each tends to support the status quo.

Several longtime federal officials privately cite another problem: built-in constituencies that become effective pressure groups able to thwart major change, from welfare to military procurement. Members of Congress can be very protective of their subcommittee chairmanships and the industries in their districts.


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