Gridlock in Congress Gives Way to Chaotic Progress : Government: The lawmakers play their part in Clinton's push for 'American renewal,' but the tortured process leaves some people unsatisfied.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly a year after President Clinton came into office promising "a new season of American renewal" and an "end to deadlock and drift," the Congress that has all but concluded its 1993 session could boast that it helped Clinton keep his word.

But from the bruising debate over deficit reduction to the "let's make a deal" free-for-all over the North American Free Trade Agreement, the legislative year brought to mind the words of the late senator and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey: The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but Congress is "a pretty good detour."

The often tortured process by which an impressive list of legislation ultimately was passed "turned a lot of people off," Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) noted. Congress grappled with "real issues that matter to people," but after almost every battle there was a lot of "blood on the floor."

There is no question that Bill Clinton left an indelible imprint on Congress this year, his reach extending from the tax increases on the wealthy, imposed over Republican protests, to the approval of NAFTA, adopted over the objections of liberal Democrats and their labor supporters.

From national service to gays in the military, from the debate over health care to reform of the nation's voter registration laws, members of Congress wrestled with a crowded agenda far different from what they would have confronted if former President George Bush had been reelected.

But, if Clinton demonstrated the full power of the presidency to set the legislative agenda when one party controls Congress and the White House, his frequently tempestuous relationship with fellow Democrats also underscored--painfully at times--the limits of his ability to shape the outcome.

Gridlock was broken, at least in the sense that people had come to understand it during 12 years of divided government. But in its place too often was legislative chaos, as the former governor from Arkansas, a neophyte in Washington's savage political ways, did battle with an undisciplined Congress, whose freshman-dominated membership often behaved, in the words of political analyst Lawrence Hansen, "like 535 atoms spontaneously bouncing off one another."

In the end, Clinton won far more legislative battles than he lost. A recent study by Congressional Quarterly, a weekly magazine on legislative affairs, showed that for all the talk about his missteps with Congress, Clinton had the highest success rate in his first year of any President since Dwight D. Eisenhower, prevailing on 90% of the votes on which his Administration took a stand.

And yet on the eve of adjournment there was a kind of defeated atmosphere about the halls of Congress, a sense of resignation that stemmed from a recognition by many lawmakers that the public's perception of Congress is still dominated by images of gridlock and scandal, by lingering emotions of pessimism and mistrust.

"The American public is totally distrustful of government and anyone in power," Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento) said. "We're not getting credit for what we do because, whatever we do, we don't seem to be relevant to people anymore."

For Republicans, who were frozen out of the budget negotiations and spent most of the year watching the legacy of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bush being dismantled, the legislative session was depressing for other reasons. Aside from the trade agreement, a Bush Administration initiative that Clinton coaxed through with GOP support, Republicans were "basically relegated to cursing in the darkness" throughout 1993, Rep. Fred Grandy (R-Iowa) said.

But for Democrats, who discovered that being on the ins with the White House could be a hard adjustment for a party so long accustomed to being on the outs, 1993 posed additional frustrations.

Congress had a large and mostly undisciplined freshman class. It seemed to have an almost visceral fear of an electorate polarized by Ross Perot's populism. And party ranks seemed even more divided into liberal and conservative blocs. All these things contributed to an "entrepreneurial atmosphere" in which House members in particular spent the year "behaving like they were all in business for themselves rather than their party or their President," said William Schneider, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.

The lack of support showed up in the defeat of Clinton's economic stimulus package early in the year, the White House's retreat on an energy tax and the razor-thin margin of approval for the budget.

And even on tough calls like the trade pact--which will phase out most tariffs among Canada, Mexico and the United States--the frantic buying and selling of votes that preceded the House vote took some of the luster off what was arguably the President's most important victory on Capitol Hill this year.

"No matter what they did, they came across as looking bad. . . . No matter what they accomplished, it was overshadowed by all the bickering, by the obsession with scandal and the much more cynical approach" that the press has taken to covering Congress, congressional scholar Norman Ornstein said.

That cynicism was reinforced by the attention the press continued to pay to scandals in 1993. In the House, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), came under suspicion when the Justice Department began investigating embezzlement allegations, which are still pending.

In the Senate, Oregon Republican Bob Packwood bitterly fought attempts by the Ethics Committee and the Justice Department to subpoena his private--and reportedly racy--diaries. The Ethics Committee sought the papers as part of an investigation into charges of sexual misconduct. The Justice Department wanted them in connection with allegations that Packwood may have acted improperly on behalf of a lobbyist.

But many lawmakers also agreed that another reason the process was so tortured was Clinton's status as a President elected with just 43% of the popular vote.

The weakness of his mandate, coupled with his alleged missteps in foreign policy, undermined support for Clinton from fellow Democrats. It also meant that Clinton often had to scramble to win votes, sometimes making conflicting commitments that he would not always be able to keep.

The result was an erosion of trust in the President and, in the nail-biting buildups to the budget and the NAFTA votes, more than the normal amount of pork-barrel politicking as members sought favors for their support.

"The past year proved that breaking gridlock was not enough," Schneider said. "It showed that even the President's own party will walk away from him if he is perceived as weak."

But if the process wasn't pretty, Clinton and the Democratic leadership could at least boast that the outcome was, in the words of Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), "one of the most remarkable and productive sessions of Congress in years."

Clinton's come-from-behind victory on the trade agreement unquestionably bolstered his image in the waning days of the legislative session and proved that, for all the partisan bitterness that divided them, Democrats and Republicans could cooperate in a way that will be even more important next year, when the health care debate gets into full swing.

Among the other accomplishments in 1993:

Crime: The Senate passed a sweeping crime bill that outlaws the sale of assault weapons, expands the death penalty and provides $22 billion in funds for more prisons and police. It must be reconciled with a less ambitious House-passed bill when Congress reconvenes in January.

In a milestone in the gun control debate, both chambers voted to require a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases by finally approving the Brady bill, named after former White House Press Secretary James S. Brady, who was wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan. The future of that bill remains in doubt, however, because of Republican concerns in the Senate.

Spending Cuts and Taxes: With all Republicans voting no, Congress approved a package of spending cuts and tax increases to reduce the deficit by more than $500 billion over five years. Lawmakers killed Clinton's proposal for an energy tax but did include a levy on transportation fuels and higher taxes for the wealthy. More spending cuts could come in 1994.

Foreign Policy: Reacting to the slaying of 18 U.S. soldiers in Somalia Oct. 3, Congress emotionally debated American military commitments in the post-Cold War world. The lawmakers forced Clinton to agree to withdraw U.S. forces from Somalia by March 31 but backed down from a constitutional confrontation over his authority to send troops elsewhere.

In Clinton's only foreign policy success with Congress apart from the trade agreement, lawmakers also approved a $2.5-billion assistance package for Russia and other former Soviet states.

Democratic Agenda: Congress also passed several bills that had been vetoed by Bush last year or that Clinton wanted passed as part of his "agenda for change."

They included Clinton's National Service bill to grant scholarships to youths who perform community service, family leave legislation to give up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year to workers who need time off to care for a newborn child or a sick relative, and voter registration reform that will allow citizens to register to vote by mail, or at welfare offices and motor vehicle bureaus.

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