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Lawmaking loses to election posturing

Capitol gridlock often precedes national votes. But this time, bitter winds blow early.

President Clinton's hoped-for "season of progress" on America's domestic agenda has rapidly deteriorated into a season of electioneering.

From gun control, to patients' rights to tax cuts, lawmakers are rejecting compromise and a record of accomplishment. Instead, they are using these and other issues as markers for the 2000 elections - a strategy that political analysts say has kicked in earlier than in the past.

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"Politics permeates every legislative action on Capitol Hill, but this year more than in past off-election years," says Marshall Wittmann, congressional analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation here. "With the debates in Congress, you can see the contours for the 2000 election."

Those contours are forming around the fundamental question of how to spend future budget surpluses. While both parties agree that a large share should go to shoring up Social Security, Republicans want to spend the rest on big tax cuts. Democrats want to divide it between smaller tax cuts and programs such as Medicare and education.

Admittedly, the prognosis was not good for a "do-something" Congress this year. Impeachment widened the trust gap between the president and congressional leaders. And the Kosovo war pulled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue away from domestic business, bumping important issues such as Medicare reform into an already crowded summer.

Lessons of 1998

But given the lessons of last year, in which voters repudiated Republicans for their lack of achievements, it was thought that at least some progress would be possible before Labor Day.

That's the traditional start of the primary campaign season - and the traditional end of whatever bipartisanship might exist in the nation's capital.

The parties have agreed on such issues as the "year 2000" computer problem and building a missile defense system, but these resonate little with most Americans. And while no one rules out a last-minute budget deal to avoid another government shutdown this fall, that is unlikely to involve major reforms.

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"It's far too early to tell whether this Congress is going to serve out its term or quit early," says Bruce Reed, domestic adviser to President Clinton. Mr. Reed refers back to 1996, when, in order to have a record to run on, Congress passed landmark welfare reform, a minimum-wage hike, and a bill that guaranteed health insurance for workers who lost or left their jobs.

But this year, Democrats can almost taste their return to majority status in the House, and that has a lot to do with the early electioneering, says independent political analyst Charles Cook.

"I see Democrats doing a lot of framing of issues," he says. "That's what the patients' bill of rights is all about. They're looking for issues to show Republicans as either extreme, or in-competent, or uncaring, or what-have-you."

Indeed, patients' rights was one area which, earlier in the year, pundits and politicians alike named as ripe for compromise.

Yet, despite Republican provisions that Democrats wanted, Democrats said "no" to the GOP Senate version last week, arguing it didn't cover enough people and didn't allow individuals to sue health-care providers.

After it passed, the White House vowed to veto. Last-minute efforts at compromise failed.

Turning the tables, Republican leaders are now trying to paint Democrats as do-nothings - a message with some irony, since the GOP controls Congress. "The Democrat leadership has adopted a do-nothing partisan agenda that is designed to produce gridlock," House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas, wrote colleagues.

Meanwhile, Republicans are doing plenty of positioning themselves, with leaders pushing a large tax cut despite repeated veto threats from the White House and significant dissent by moderates in their own ranks.

In a July 19 interview on Fox News Sunday, Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, said he would not compromise on the proposed GOP tax cut of $800 billion. Clinton has called for $250 billion in targeted tax cuts.

Congressional analyst Wittmann and others say this is mere posturing, that Republicans do want a tax deal. But Lott has done nothing to smooth the way, lambasting the president for his veto threats and "demagoguery."

Clinton's shift

Indeed, the president's sharp attacks on Republicans last week stood in marked contrast to his stance earlier this summer. At that time, he took the political high road, urging lawmakers to move quickly on areas where they could agree, and then turn to more difficult issues. Good policy is good politics, he reminded them in June, adding that there will be plenty of issues left to fight about come election time.

But that is not always true, points out Stuart Rothenberg, of The Rothenberg Political Report. While a balanced budget was good for the country, he explains, it removed a traditional campaign theme for Republicans.

In the meantime, with a month-long summer recess starting Aug. 7, the window of political opportunity is nearly shut. Says Mr. Rothenberg: "The chance for compromise on significant legislation is growing dimmer and dimmer every day."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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