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Congress Picks Up Pace On Key Pieces Of Legislation Why? Will, New Majority Leader, Need For Results To Campaign On

Mon., July 29, 1996

Congress has shaken off months of gridlocked lethargy and is passing bills that it can go home and campaign on, from fighting terrorism to putting more police officers on the street.

And where it has not yet managed to get bills to a pivotal vote, it has at least cleared away critical obstacles, like those in the way of health-insurance and minimum-wage legislation.

As a result, House Republican leaders said on Friday that they hoped for final votes next week on legislation involving welfare, immigration, safe drinking water and health insurance and on a measure to raise the minimum wage to $5.15 per hour, from $4.25.

These bills have to emerge from House-Senate conferences, which can be contentious, so it is unlikely that all will be passed next week. But none of the bills is out of reach.

There are several explanations for the increased pace. One is determination. “We’re like ‘the little engine that could,”’ Speaker Newt Gingrich said. In an interview, he said that “hard work” and “the fact that people learn from mistakes” were responsible for the legislative upturn.

Another reason is the new majority leader, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi. Lott, who was elected to the post after Bob Dole resigned from the Senate, took over at a time when Democrats were enjoying taunting and blocking Dole and nothing was being done. Lott is plainly seeking to show that his accession has led to accomplishments.

“He really is good at pushing people along,” said John L. Hilley, the chief White House lobbyist. “He wants the place to work.” At least so far, Lott seems less of a conservative ideologue and more of a Senate pragmatist than expected.

A third reason is the calendar. Congresses, even in presidential years, usually accomplish more in their second sessions than in their first. And if anything important and the least bit controversial is to be enacted this year, there is only the coming week and four election-pressured weeks after Labor Day left to do it in. The Congress will recess in August for political conventions, campaigning and a little vacation.

An imminent election not only invites action on bills that a member can boast of, but it also produces votes on legislation that is going nowhere but can fill the need for television spots or political cover.

By that standard, the House vote on Thursday against campaign finance legislation was less a defeat for Gingrich, its chief advocate, than it was a victory for the representatives. The legislation, touted as an overhaul of campaign financing, was widely criticized as being the opposite, a measure that would increase the influence of special-interest donors.

So some representatives can claim that they voted to make the system better, and others that they at least tried to keep it from getting worse, at no risk to the campaign money they have been raking in for months.

The Democrats can claim parts of the agenda about to be voted upon as their own, especially the minimum-wage increase and the bill to make health-insurance coverage portable from job to job. Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the minority leader, even began his news conference on Friday by boasting “that two of the very big pieces of our action agenda, paycheck security and health security, are breathing new life again.”

Gingrich called the insurance portability bill, “in human terms, probably the biggest single reform of this Congress.” And he has backed action on increasing the minimum wage, too, acknowledging its popularity in the nation and seeing the small-business tax cuts in the bill as an amelioration of the impact of the wage increase on employers.

Some bipartisan agreement is an essential condition of action in Congress, especially in the Senate, and all the items on the Republican priority list, even welfare, have substantial Democratic support.


 

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