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Fight in Congress Shifts To Divisive Social Issues

Environment, wages replace budget as new choke points

Eighteen months after Republicans won control of Congress, Washington's policy battles are moving past the GOP's prized fiscal agenda towards social issues more traditionally associated with the Democratic Party.

With the long, tiring struggle over the fiscal 1996 budget finally over, lawmakers and White House officials will now focus on health care, a proposed increase in the minimum wage, the environment, and other non-budget topics. The Contract With America portion of the 104th Congress is now largely over, and with presidential election season fast approaching a more free-form sort of US political discussion is about to begin.

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This doesn't mean that Republicans can't make substantive and political gains in the weeks ahead. GOP lawmakers have been deeply involved in current efforts to reform health insurance, for instance.

It does mean that GOP leaders are likely to rethink their overall issue strategy. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said as much this week when he told a Washington audience that Republicans have been outmaneuvered on the environment, in particular - and need to define a new environmental agenda centered on cooperation instead of confrontation.

Still, nothing in coming weeks is likely to approach the intensity, or the length, of this fiscal year's White House-Congress budget clash. With its government shutdowns, its seven-year balanced-budget plans, and its heated rhetoric, it was both dramatic and historic - at least, by Washington budget clash standards.

In the end, White House and GOP negotiators struck a final deal late Wednesday night that ensured permanent funding for the nine Cabinet-level departments and various federal agencies that had been limping along on temporary funding.

Both sides walked away from the $163 billion agreement claiming victory. And in a sense both might be right. "In political terms it's a draw," says Thomas Mann, a government studies expert at the Brookings Institution.

The GOP, he points out, ratcheted down the government's discretionary spending by a considerable amount. By GOP accounting, the budget deficit for 1996 will be about $23 billion less than it would have been if Democrats continued to hold the reins of legislative power.

Republicans also forced the overall issue of budget-balancing to the fore. While they failed to achieve their goal of a seven-year agreement outlining a path to black ink, they forced the president to produce his own budget-balance plan, and the issue is sure to arise in the next budget cycle.

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President Clinton won this year's deal in the sense that he was able to move funds around within the budget to better suit his own priorities. In the end, Republicans had to restore almost $5 billion of $8 billion they had earlier lopped off education, job training, Head Start, and other favorite Democratic programs.

Clinton also forced GOP lawmakers to effectively drop a number of environmental policy provisions that Democrats didn't like. And by some measures the president won the short-term political battle: His poll ratings increased during government shut-down show-downs, while those of the GOP congressional leadership dropped.

The next issue up, at least in terms of contention, is the minimum wage. Democrats - particularly Senate minority leader Sen. Thomas Daschle of South Dakota - have been unexpectedly successful at winning moderate Republicans to their side for a proposed 90-cent-an-hour minimum-wage increase. They've kept majority leader and presumptive presidential nominee Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas busy fending off their efforts to bring a minimum-wage increase to the Senate floor - and they've forced the GOP leadership to think about its own wage-raising proposal.

Republican leaders want to redefine this issue away from an increase in the minimum wage per se, towards a general effort to bring hard-pressed American workers more take-home pay. That's something their overall agenda of tax cuts, welfare reform, and labor-law changes would facilitate, GOP aides say. It's possible that Republicans will put together an overall pay-raise legislative package, in an effort to win back their own moderates and keep a minimum-wage vote off the House and Senate floors.

House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas said yesterday that he believes that the GOP will eventually send the White House "an income strengthening package of many dimensions."

Meanwhile, health-insurance reform is beginning to loom as a political issue for the fall. The central issue of allowing Americans more freedom to take health insurance from job to job is one that both Democrats and Republicans generally agree on. It's the subsidiary issues - and particularly a proposal to allow people to set up tax-deductible medical savings accounts (MSAs) - that could spark partisan disagreement.

The White House strongly opposes MSAs as something that could erode insurance protection. Mr. Dole strongly supports them.

*Staff writer Kurt Shillinger contributed to this report.

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