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Liberalism on social issues again in vogue on Capitol Hill

After a seven-year hiatus, liberalism on domestic social issues is suddenly in vogue again in Washington. Both conservative and liberal analysts here see Senate approval Wednesday of the catastrophic health care bill as an example of that shift. Nor is the liberalism limited to health care. Wednesday the House approved a bill to limit the number of commercials shown during children's television programs. Next week the Senate is expected to vote on Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's controversial welfare reform package. Passage is considered certain since nearly two-thirds of the Senate are co-sponsors. Even child-care issues, long virtually ignored on Capitol Hill, are being seriously discussed, although passage of major legislation is unlikely this year .

This renewed liberal vitality on domestic issues comes because of the ``collapse of the administration's domestic program and priorities,'' says a conservative analyst who requested that his name not be used.

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As always in Washington, politics plays a role in this action, especially in a presidential election year. Some of the new liberalism ``is political posturing,'' says Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. ``But I think [Congress] really wants to spend this money'' for these purposes.

``The cry for the reduced role of government has completely dropped'' on Capitol Hill, says John Rother, legislative director of the American Association of Retired Persons. ``The only thing that's left'' as an objection to major federally financed health bills ``is concern for the deficit.''

This fiscal concern largely explains why the House Wednesday defeated Rep. Claude Pepper's proposal for a multibillion-dollar federal long-term health care program to help persons, most of them elderly, who are being cared for at home.

Next year's Congress is expected to study the issue of long-term care thoroughly. The Pepper bill was voted on without such study, to the consternation of many House members. One major concern was that costs would be far higher than the $30 billion over five years forecast by Mr. Pepper, a veteran Florida Democrat.

``If Pepper's bill costs what he says it will,'' Mr. Besharov said before the vote, ``it will be the first bill in 20 years that costs what [sponsors] say it costs.''

At the same time, some organizations that aid the elderly, keenly aware of the lack of an effective White House counterweight to congressional liberalism, are pressing Congress or the states to take further action. The Alliance for Aging Research asks for added funding for scientific research into diseases that afflict the elderly. The Villers Advocacy Associates, concerned about the effect of rising medicare premiums on the elderly poor, ask that the states help pay part of the added expense.

Finances are only part of the problem: A few voices in Washington are beginning to be raised about the allocation of scarce federal funding.

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``What we have,'' says former Carter domestic policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat, ``is a double dilemma.'' Mr. Eizenstat, now in private law practice, says that both a public and a congressional desire exists ``for greater domestic spending on a whole host of domestic needs unmet'' during the Reagan presidency. Yet ``the resources to fill them are markedly shrunken,'' and a generational dilemma exists.

``We are putting a lot of our money in health care, legitimately, ... at the elderly end of the spectrum,'' Eizenstat says. ``But the question is: How much of the pie should go on that side? And whether we should put some piece of that pie in what I would consider a broader area'' - to meet the unmet needs of children, for instance, for improved education and housing.

Besharov disagrees. When federal and state expenditures are taken together, he says, total spending on young and old is ``very close.'' The federal government spends ``a disproportionate amount of money on the elderly than the young,'' primarily for social security and medicare. ``If on the other hand you look at the state expenditures, gobs more are being spent on the kids than on the elderly.''

This disparity, Besharov says, reflects the ``difference between the responsibility of the states and the federal government.'' Uncle Sam pays for ``social security and medicare,'' which primarily aid the elderly; the states, for education.

In any case, Eizenstat says, catastrophic health care can be self-financed through payments by the elderly. But training and education programs cannot be self-financed: ``Where do you get the revenue for them and other unmet needs? I think the next president will have to struggle with this very great dilemma.''

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