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104th Congress's Promise: Half Empty or Half Fulfilled?

GOP's lionhearted revolution posted gains but then turned docile

The first Republican-controlled Congress in 40 years produced some solid legislative accomplishments - but in the end, it was far from the revolution GOP leaders bravely predicted when they took control of Capitol Hill nearly two years ago.

A historic welfare bill, farm program overhaul, telecommunications and health insurance reforms, and passage of a presidential line-item veto count among lawmakers' major recent actions. Some 60 percent of the Contract with America has become law, claimed House Republicans at a rally on the Capitol steps last week.

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"We have done what we said we would do - the president has signed what we said we would do," said House majority leader Rep. Dick Armey (R) of Texas.

But many of the Contract's highest profile items, from a balanced budget constitutional amendment to congressional term limits, failed to pass. GOP-induced government shutdowns proved public relations disasters. And Democratic lawmakers have been a major force in recent months, pushing through such priorities as an increase in the minimum wage and billions more for education and other popular programs.

"You can stand on the Capitol steps and hire a brass band ... but you still can't make a full-scale retreat look like a full-dress parade," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle last week.

The mixed record of the 104th Congress may be best exemplified by its budget-cutting record. Depending on how you look at it, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his allies have either led the stingiest Congress ever - or are presiding over a legislative body that has already reverted back to a freer-spending status quo.

First, consider the cuts. When the dust settles this week, the 104th will likely have reduced nonmilitary, discretionary spending for 1996 and 1997 by about $53 billion, according to GOP estimates. That represents perhaps the biggest real reduction in discretionary funds in years.

Furthermore, the GOP may have shifted the terms of debate. All lawmakers now make obeisance to the concept of a balanced budget, whether or not they're in favor of particular cuts. In his State of the Union address, President Clinton said that "the era of big government is over," after all.

But Republican congressional leaders were unable to make cuts in the big entitlement programs that are the real engines of federal spending: Social Security and Medicare. And with an election approaching the GOP's zeal for swinging the budget ax faded noticeably this year. Republicans acceded to the Clinton administration's demand that $6.5 billion be added to the budget for schools and other domestic spending, rather than face another White House-Congress budget showdown clash.

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When the GOP took control of Congress, the general government budget (not counting entitlements) was about $508 billion a year. In their first year of power, Republican lawmakers cut that figure to some $490 billion. Now GOP lawmakers will likely allow the number to float back up to at least $503 billion for 1997 - not that much less than what Democrats were spending after decades of controlling the congressional purse strings.

The Republicans self-imposed seven-year path to a balanced budget is thus already some $6 billion over plan.

The GOP is in an "election-year retreat," claims Senator Daschle. Having belatedly discovered that there are many government programs voters like - such as Medicare - the Republicans are backpedaling furiously from their previous minimalist government goals, say Democrats.

Still, the GOP said they counted their session a success. "We came, we saw, we reformed," claimed House majority whip Tom DeLay of Texas.

Among the significant legislation to pass the 104th Congress:

*Welfare reform. The longstanding federal guarantee of assistance to all who qualify will end. It has been replaced by state programs financed partially by federal block grants. Eligibility is generally limited to five years.

*Farm policy. Subsidies and price supports for corn, wheat, cotton, rice, and some other commodities will end. Lump sum "transition payments" have taken their place, but will be phased out over seven years.

*Health insurance. Workers will be able to change jobs and continue health-care coverage without worry about preexisting conditions. New mothers will be entitled to at least a 48-hour stay in the hospital for them and their babies.

*Minimum wage. The $4.25-an-hour minimum wage will eventually increase to $5.15.

*Telecommunications. Local telephone companies will eventually be able to enter the long-distance business. A government-promoted "V-chip" will eventually screen TV programs for content that's not suitable for children.

*Line-item veto. Gave presidents the power to rescind individual line-items in big spending bills. This is a change long sought by chief executives of both parties.

*Speed limit. The long-standing federal mandate of a 55 mile-per-hour speed limit was repealed. States now have much greater freedom to set their own interstate highway speed limits.

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