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Lawmakers Begin to Write Epilogue to 104th Congress

Minimum wage, budget, and welfare provide the dramatic tension

When the week began, the burning question on Capitol Hill was how the sudden resignation of Senate majority leader Bob Dole would affect the congressional agenda.

Some lawmakers expected Mr. Dole's departure to unclog the legislative pipes. Others, including one Dole confidant, suggested little would get done after the Kansan's departure, and Congress might as well "shut the door and turn off the lights."

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At press time yesterday, both theories were defensible. The House passed a bill repealing the 4.3 cent hike in the gas tax, and Senate Republicans neared completion of a budget blueprint that, like its House version, is tamer than last year's. But the minimum-wage bill wilted Wednesday night in a partisan spat, and no legislation made it to the president's desk.

In coming weeks, lawmakers will write the last chapter, and much of the epilogue, for the 104th Congress. They will either tell of a torrent of popular legislation enacted or a series of symbolic clashes that led nowhere.

Here are some of the major agenda items likely to be considered in the next few weeks:

*The minimum wage. This boisterous political fight came to a head Wednesday as the House failed to vote on a measure to raise the minimum wage 90 cents over two years to $5.15 an hour. Democrats objected to a Republican amendment that would exempt businesses with gross annual sales under $500,000, a change the Labor Department says could affect 10 million workers. Republicans also threatened to stall the bill by labeling it an "unfunded mandate."

While the House approved a package of tax breaks for small businesses aimed at softening the minimum-wage blow, the divide between conservative Republicans who oppose the measure, and Democrats and moderate Republicans who support it, seems deep. The White House suggests the amendment might be grounds for a veto if the bill passes.

*Gas Tax. This bill, which would repeal a 4.3-cent hike in the federal excise tax on gasoline, passed the House Tuesday by a wide margin. But President Clinton and Senate Democrats have said it will be vetoed unless Republicans send the president a clean minimum-wage bill. Senate minority leader Tom Daschle says the measure may not survive in the Senate without an amendment ensuring that the savings go to motorists and not oil companies.

*The budget. At press time, the Senate was preparing to vote on a budget sketch that would, like the House version passed last week, save $700 billion in six years while offering a $122 billion tax cut for families with children. While both plans would trim more than the president's proposed budget, they represent a virtual freeze of last year's spending levels. In some cases, Republicans even want to spend more.

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These moderate plans are part of a broader GOP strategy to avoid last year's rigidity and gridlock. Republicans in both chambers hope to craft a compromise budget blueprint by mid-June. Even House majority leader Dick Armey, normally one of the most ardent government cutters, seems to accept the moderate tack.

*Medicaid and welfare. In a move seemingly orchestrated by the Dole presidential campaign, Republicans last week unveiled new plans to revamp these entitlement programs for the poor. The move comes in a week of intense political maneuvering in which Mr. Clinton voiced approval for a tough Wisconsin welfare plan; Dole responded with a speech calling welfare "liberalism's greatest shame," and saying he would allow states to force recipients to undergo drug testing.

In this week's announcement, Republicans said they would debate these bills as a package in mid-June. The GOP proposals, modeled after bipartisan compromises forged by the nation's governors, would cede much responsibility to states and save $125 billion in six years.

On welfare, the program would end benefit guarantees and require recipients to work after two years on the dole. Republicans softened the bill slightly by adding $4 billion for child care, a move the governors requested.

But the Medicaid proposal could sink the bill. Republicans would mete out Medicaid money to the states in the form of block grants, and give states wide authority to design their own systems. Opponents, led by a group of Democratic governors, call this plan a "mean-spirited" violation of their bipartisan agreement and have urged Clinton to veto it.

*Health-care reform. While majorities in both Houses support a health-care bill that would allow workers to carry their health-insurance benefits from job to job, the measure is stalled in the Senate. Before his resignation announcement, Dole was at loggerheads with the bill's Senate sponsors over a proposal to allow Medicare recipients to open tax-free medical-savings accounts. With Dole gone, the future of reform is unclear.

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