When they last left town, the nation’s lawmakers were in an ornery mood.
They were frazzled by months of intense bickering that produced a cut-down but still massively unbalanced 1986 federal budget that few liked. Democrats were muttering about mixed signals from Republicans. Republicans were feuding with their own GOP-run White House. Farm-state legislators were fussing about urban members’ lack of concern for their pressing problems. And there was widespread grumbling about the dilatory tactics of a handful of senators pushing their own right-wing agenda.
As members begin straggling back to work today, will a month of vacations, town meetings, fact-finding tours and old-fashioned junkets have cooled their rancor?
Will Republican leaders be able to work with, rather than fight with, the Administration?
Will “must pass” legislation raising the national debt ceiling, fine-tuning federal spending levels, underwriting agricultural programs and renewing a key environmental cleanup initiative sail through the lawmaking process by Sept. 30 deadlines?
And will tax reform, President Reagan’s premier second-term legislative initiative, escape the pitfalls of partisan wrangling and become law in time to give the nation’s taxpayers a Christmas present?
Answer to Questions
As in soap opera, the answer to most or all of the above questions is: Don’t count on it.
“We’ll have a contentious session,” predicted Sen. Alan Cranston of California, the Democratic whip. " . . . It won’t just be between Democrats and the President. It will be between Democrats, Republicans and the President.”
Relations between Reagan and his Republican troops in Congress have become increasingly fragile in recent months, especially in the Senate, where GOP leaders fumed after committing themselves to politically risky budget-cutting proposals only to have the President reject them. Democrats control the House by a wide margin, but Republicans are struggling to retain a slim majority in the 100-member upper chamber, where 22 seats in GOP hands are up for election in 1986.
Reagan may have set the tone for the session by indicating recently that he intends to be even less accommodating and more forceful in pushing his legislative agenda. The White House has signaled not only that Reagan would veto any spending bills deemed too costly but that he would also resist efforts, backed by some Republicans, to continue hefty subsidies for the nation’s debt-ridden farmers.
“They’re going to continue to be hard-line and continue to hurt Republicans in the Midwest,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) complained. " . . . They don’t consider the reelection of Andrews, Abdnor, Grassley and Kasten very important. They don’t care whether they control the Senate or not.”
Grassley and Sens. Mark Andrews of North Dakota, James Abdnor of South Dakota and Bob Kasten of Wisconsin are four farm-state Republicans who fear that Reagan’s agricultural policies may undercut their reelection efforts next year.
Reagan set the stage for another major confrontation last week when he rejected demands to aid the beleaguered domestic shoe industry by limiting low-cost footwear imports and threatened to veto any protectionist bills passed by Congress.
Several proposals to cut imports or raise tariffs in retaliation against trade restrictions imposed in such countries as Japan have been introduced by lawmakers of both parties.
In a tough speech in Tokyo recently, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) warned that Congress was getting fed up with foreign trade practices that many members perceive as unfair and would almost surely pass protectionist measures this fall unless Japan moves decisively to open its markets to American goods and reduce its estimated $50-billion trade surplus with the United States.
Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), who accompanied Dole on a two-week Far Eastern swing last month to assess trade problems, said Reagan’s puritanical approach to free trade flies in the face of “a drastic mood change” in a Congress increasingly worried about the loss of American jobs and willing to protect U.S. industries from unfair foreign competition. “There comes a time when turning the other cheek is no longer Christianity,” Wilson said. “It’s stupidity.”
Responding to the restlessness in GOP ranks, Stuart Spencer, coordinator for the President’s 1984 reelection campaign, warned that Republicans should remember that Reagan’s support is their best campaign asset and that more Americans identify with him than with Congress. If Congress tries to undercut Reagan, Spencer warned, “they’re going to find out there’s no love affair between Congress and the American people.”
Significant action on trade bills is unlikely before next month, but Reagan and Congress may collide much sooner. Only minor issues face the House this week, but when the Senate reconvenes next Monday, it will immediately tackle the highly charged question of economic sanctions against South Africa to protest apartheid and violent suppression of blacks by that country’s white minority rulers.
Reagan contends that imposing penalties would undermine his ability to influence South Africa toward meaningful change, and Administration officials have all but promised that he would veto a compromise package of sanctions already passed by the House and pending in the Senate.
Passage Seems Certain
The sanctions bill had widespread bipartisan support in the Senate before the recess, but Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and seven right-wing colleagues stalled final action with a filibuster. It may take a few days to undo the parliamentary knots that Helms has tied in the bill, but quick passage seems certain and a congressional override of any veto is likely.
More ideologically tinged fireworks are expected with the Oct. 1 start of the 1986 fiscal year. Although both houses finally passed a resolution outlining a record $967-billion budget for next year, agreement has not been reached on any of the 13 major appropriations bills that detail actual spending levels for government agencies, and final action on all 13 before the deadline is improbable.
Meanwhile, federal borrowing will hit the authorized $1.8-trillion debt ceiling by the month’s end, and Congress will have to set a higher level if the government is to keep borrowing.
In past years, members with pet causes have tried to capitalize on pressure for prompt action on the debt and on money bills by pushing amendments promoting their hobbies, and the debt limit will be fair game. Complicating the picture will be Reagan’s threat to veto spending bills he views as budget-busters.
Some Reaganites want to renew a fight to give the President strong new powers to pare spending items without killing entire bills. Critics from both parties contend that the “line-item veto” would tip the legislative-executive balance toward the White House.
Only four weeks remain before Sept. 30, the expiration date for current farm programs and for the Superfund law authorizing federal spending to clean up abandoned toxic waste dumps.
The Administration wants to trim farm subsidy programs to save money and to promote agricultural exports with more competitive world prices. Farm-state legislators from both parties have dissented, contending that the cuts will aggravate economic distress among their constituents.
There is little doubt that the Superfund law will be renewed, but it is unclear whether it will be strengthened. Environmentalists charge the Administration with lax enforcement of present laws and want Congress to set a timetable to force the Environmental Protection Agency to speed the cleanup of poisonous waste sites.
Another major confrontation looms on immigration reform, which the full Senate is scheduled to take up next week. The Administration-backed measure, sponsored by Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), would make it illegal for the first time to hire undocumented workers and would provide amnesty for some illegal aliens.
One casualty of the crowded calendar could be Reagan’s tax reform package, designed to streamline the federal income tax by readjusting rates and simplifying the present crazy-quilt of loopholes and deductions. Although the House Ways and Means Committee will start tailoring the bill this month, the timetable could be upset if lawmakers get bogged down on collateral issues.
Delays could make agreement more difficult by pushing final congressional action into the 1986 election year. At best, final House consideration is not expected until mid-October, with a Senate vote in late November.