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Congress Faces Full Buffet in Another Washington Spring

The 105th Congress returns this week to a large smorgasbord of bills in need of debate and decision.

Congress faces a grueling five weeks of work as it returns from the Easter recess tomorrow. Besides the budget, members will take on matters ranging from controversial education legislation to tobacco to expanding the NATO military alliance.

With the budget and 13 annual spending bills still on the agenda, and an abbreviated election-year schedule, the time between now and Memorial Day may well determine how productive the second session of the 105th Congress will be.

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Every move on Capitol Hill now takes place with an eye toward November. Democratic leaders are already taunting Republicans for running a "do-nothing" Congress. Republicans reply that the first three months of the year are slow because much work is still in committee. Several measures are just now moving to the floor.

"We're gonna have a very aggressive agenda," says Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi.

Among the issues that will make news:

Budget. While the Senate passed its budget measure before the recess, the House has yet to take up a bill. A key issue will be the size of the GOP tax cut proposal. The Senate limits the tax cut to $30 billion, but conservatives agreed to support the bill only after Senator Lott promised to work for a higher figure. The challenge will be how to pay for the reduction, and what form it will take.

Disaster relief. Each chamber has passed its version of a bill to provide funds for disaster relief, the Bosnia peacekeeping mission, and Gulf military deployments. A conference committee will meet to try to bridge the serious differences: The House wants to pay for the emergency-spending bill with cuts elsewhere; the Senate does not. The House has split off additional loan guarantees for the International Monetary Fund into a separate bill and attached anti-abortion legislation; the Senate has a single measure. "I really don't know how it is going to be resolved," says Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota. "My guess is both sides are going to have to give."

Tobacco. Senator Lott says he'll bring the Senate Commerce Committee bill, which the tobacco industry opposes, to the floor in May. It's questionable whether the Senate or House will pass the measure in its current form, and a free-for-all could ensue.

"The package that came out of Commerce is going to have to be modified," Lott says. "If we don't get it through the Senate by the end of May it's going to be hard ... to get it done [this year]." Some believe if Congress succeeds in passing anything, it will be a stripped-down measure to fight teen smoking and recover some health-care costs. Unknown is what tack Rep. Thomas Bliley Jr. (R) of Virginia, chairman of the House Commerce Committee, will take.

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Education. After a pair of showdowns on the floor, senators finally agreed on the rules to debate a GOP proposal to expand tax-free education savings accounts to K-12 expenses, including private- and parochial-school tuition. Democrats say that's an attack on public education - they will push amendments to subsidize school-construction bonds and provide funding for 100,000 new teachers.

Foreign policy. The Senate will resume debate over enlarging NATO to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. While a minority on both the right and left opposes expansion, the measure is expected to pass. Much murkier are the futures of a bill to reorganize the State Department and pay money owed the United Nations, and the IMF funding. In both cases, language to bar overseas agencies receiving US funds from promoting abortion will almost certainly prompt a veto from President Clinton.

Highways and mass transit. Critics are howling over the spending levels and so-called pork-barrel projects in the House version of the bill. The Senate bill spends less, omits most of the projects, and would force states to toughen drunk-driving standards, setting up a tug of war in conference committee. Conferees face a May 1 deadline, when the current law expires.

IRS reform. Sen. William Roth (R) of Delaware will chair another round of Finance Committee hearings to spotlight Internal Revenue Service abuses of taxpayers. The committee's bill, which includes reform provisions not included in the House measure that passed last fall, should come to the floor soon after.

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