Congress Faces Key Test: Year of Distractions

Times Staff Writer

As the 100th Congress returns Monday for its second session, it faces a multitude of controversial issues, ranging from military aid for the Nicaraguan Contras and nuclear arms control to trade legislation and welfare reform.

But some observers question how much can be accomplished in a year when a flurry of presidential primaries and then the presidential election itself will distract so many members.

"You've got a realization in Congress that we're going to have a change in the White House next year," said Washington political scientist Norman J. Ornstein. "So there's an attitude of 'Why should we bust our tails passing a lot of sweeping legislation when the next guy with a new mandate may move in a new direction?' "

In addition, the entire 435-member House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate's members are facing reelection this fall. The result, said Ornstein and other political experts, is likely to be more political posturing and less substantive action in Congress than usual.

There will be plenty of opportunities for both.

By far, the most contentious issue facing Congress will be the Reagan Administration's request for assistance to the Nicaraguan rebels. Votes on the controversial proposal are set for Feb. 3 in the House and Feb. 4 in the Senate. Last week, several Republicans and 22 House Democrats urged Reagan to delay the request, but the White House has held firm on the scheduled vote.

Hopes for Aid Dimmed

Although the outcome is in doubt, recent moves by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to lift the country's state of emergency and begin talks with rebel leaders have boosted the hopes of opponents of Contra aid that they will be able to defeat the White House proposal.

Administration officials, however, have denounced Ortega's action as a propaganda ploy to influence the congressional vote and are pledging an all-out fight to maintain the Contras as a viable fighting force. White House sources have indicated that they would seek funding for a 5-month period and request additional aid after July 1.

Regardless of who wins, the Contra issue could play a pivotal role in the elections, with the leaders and candidates of both parties billing the vote as a referendum on Reagan's Central America policy and featuring it prominently in the campaigns.

House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) and other Republicans, for example, have characterized the upcoming decision as a "make or break" test of U.S. support for the Contras that will be closely watched and remembered by millions of American voters.

Sees Accommodation to Right

But Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), the House majority whip, said that White House officials "don't want peace. They don't want democracy. They want the Contras in charge in Central America because that's what the right wing wants."

Whether Congress approves the new request for military aid "will depend on what happens and who is to blame, or who gets the credit" in the Central America peace process by the Feb. 3 vote, Coelho said, adding that the outcome is still "very close."

The pressures of an election year also will be seen in Congress' continuing debate over sweeping trade reform legislation. Reagan has threatened to veto bills passed by both houses that contain provisions mandating retaliation against "unfair" trading practices by Japan and other nations that have large trade surpluses with the United States.

Currently, a conference committee is trying to reconcile the two bills, and Democratic sponsors predict that they will pass some kind of trade legislation this session. Many of them concede that they may not have the votes to override a Reagan veto, but either way they view the issue as a political plus, considering the mounting concern over the U.S. trade imbalance.

'Potent Jobs Issue'

"This is a potent jobs issue for us," said one Democratic leadership aide. "It's like Br'er Rabbit, we're saying (to Reagan) please don't veto that bill . . . any way you look at it, this provides a good platform for any Democrat to run on."

An equally acrimonious debate is expected over the Administration's plan to begin testing the "Star Wars" missile defense system. Congressional critics believe that the tests proposed by the White House would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and have voiced their opposition to a broader interpretation of the ABM treaty that would have to be approved by Congress before such tests could begin.

The issue was deferred last year but will come up again when the Administration, as expected, seeks new funds to conduct a series of tests.

Meanwhile, the Senate will begin hearings on ratification of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty that Reagan concluded last month with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The treaty, which would ban medium-range nuclear missiles, is backed by most Senate Democrats and Republican leaders, but it has drawn fire from several conservative Republicans.

Reagan has implored the Senate to ratify the treaty without attaching so-called "killer amendments" that might require the agreement to be re-submitted to the Soviets for approval. But Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and other opponents have vowed to offer provisions to "toughen" the treaty, a prospect that could trigger a lengthy fight in the Senate.

"The real battle won't be on the treaty itself but on efforts to alter it . . . and perhaps to block any future treaties on strategic weapons," said Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.). "That's something we (treaty supporters) will be trying to make the public understand."

In another special responsibility, the Senate is expected to confirm the nomination of Judge Anthony M. Kennedy to the Supreme Court with little debate. Unlike the previous nominations of Judges Robert H. Bork and Douglas H. Ginsburg, Kennedy has won broad political support from Democrats and Republicans.

Budget Problems Expected

But controversy is expected to flare again over the federal budget. Although Congress approved a two-year plan last session to reduce the budget deficit by $76 billion, that program is expected to fall short of its modest targets, largely as a result of slower economic growth and the possibility of higher interest rates.

If Congress fails to enact new taxes or spending cuts to meet these goals, the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law would trigger deep, across-the-board reductions in military and domestic programs, a prospect abhorrent to most members of Congress. As a result, both parties expect to grapple with the deficit issue in the coming months.

Although it is "politically painful," Congress may have to approve new spending cuts in an election year, according to Rep. William H. Gray III (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Budget Committee. Failing to do so would be "unconscionable . . . a real dereliction of duty," said Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), who co-authored the deficit-cutting law.

Meanwhile, Congress will resume debate over welfare reform legislation aimed at creating new jobs and putting adult public assistance recipients to work. The House approved a $5.7-billion plan last year over strong Republican opposition, and the Senate is expected to consider a $2.72-billion alternative bill, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.).

Predicts Welfare Reform

"There will be some kind of welfare legislation passed by the Senate," predicted a Democratic leadership aide, but there is "no clear indication" of whether Congress will be able to reconcile the differing House and Senate proposals and send a final bill to Reagan.

The distractions of an election year may also stall consideration of a massive bill revamping the nation's Clean Air Act. Although the legislation expires in August, some observers predict that Congress may simply extend the current law and postpone any major changes--such as tough restrictions on acid rain and new smog control standards for Los Angeles and other cities--until a new Administration takes over.

Another holdover from the last session is a bill providing catastrophic health insurance for millions of Americans. Both the House and Senate have passed legislation that would expand Medicare to pay for unlimited hospital stays and limit out-of-pocket costs for a wide range of medical services, including outpatient drug prescriptions.

The issue has strong political appeal, and leaders of both parties expect some kind of bill to be sent to Reagan this session. Members also are expected to take up legislation providing new funds for AIDS research, the homeless and aid to education later in the year.

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