- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2000

Congress returns to Washington today from its monthlong recess with just 24 workdays to finish its business for the year before a scheduled Oct. 6 adjournment.

At a minimum, that work means completing the fiscal 2001 budget, but also could include tax cuts, granting permanent normal trade status to China, health care reform, an increase in the federal minimum wage, pension reform and a reversal of the 1997 cuts to Medicare providers.

"The coming months are full of promise," House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, wrote in an Aug. 30 memo to fellow Republicans.

"We're coming to the final stretch and we've got a long way to go," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. But, he added, "There's absolutely no reason in the world we can't work out our spending-priority differences and we can't do it in a timely way."

Officially, the federal government's fiscal year ends Sept. 30 and the House and Senate have both set Oct. 6 as a tentative adjournment date.

With federal elections set for Nov. 7, that adjournment date may slip, but many Congressional aides and observers expect Congress to be done and gone after the second week of October.

Which is not to say there are no hurdles in its path.

Only two of the 13 annual spending bills have been enacted and almost all those remaining have some controversy attached. Fights over raising water levels in the Rio Grande to save the silvery minnow and lowering trade sanctions against Cuba are among the host of thorny issues to be resolved by appropriators and party leaders.

Funding levels also must be set.

Republicans say the numeric differences are relatively minor, amounting to "less than two cents on the dollar" when compared to the total budget, says Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican.

"But it is not just how much money is to be spent," countered Ranit Schmelzer, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat. "It is how that money is targeted."

While most predict the budget will be resolved, that has not stopped both parties from beginning to position themselves in case there is a confrontation.

"There is no reason for there to be a government shutdown, unless Bill Clinton has handed over the reins of the White House to his party's campaign apparatus," Mr. Lott wrote in an Aug. 29 letter to fellow Republicans released last week to reporters.

Mr. Armey's Aug. 30 memo says House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, "wants the president to keep us in town late."

Mr. Lockhart and other Democrats counter that the only people talking about a shutdown are Republicans.

Mr. Lockhart said Republicans are trying "to provide a little bit of political cover or static to disguise the fact that they haven't gotten their work done."

Despite the posturing, there is still a chance for other legislation to pass, even in the politically charged area of tax relief.

If only from historical precedent, chances for a tax bill this year are good. Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, major tax bills have been enacted in almost every presidential election year since 1956, most in September or October, according to Commerce Clearing House, a tax-information publisher.

And this year, there are a number of areas where Democrats and Republicans have reached or nearly reached agreement.

The White House and the House have already hammered out a deal to provide tax incentives to invest in blighted urban or underdeveloped rural areas. A pension-reform bill backed by Republican leaders was written by a Republican and Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. And a package of small-business tax breaks is all but certain to be attached to an increase in the minimum wage.

Leadership from both parties have also identified as top priorities a patients' bill of rights, adding a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare, easing cuts made in the 1997 budget deal to Medicare providers, increasing the number of visas for high-tech workers and bankruptcy reform.

Again, there are a number of sharp differences over these bills, but the fact that they are still being discussed keeps their chances alive.

For example, said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, said his boss has made passage of a patients' bill of rights a personal priority.

How will that translate into action?

"The speaker is very goal-oriented," Mr. Feehery said.

There is also the looming threat of failure.

Both Democrats and Republicans insist the other party will suffer in voters' eyes if Congress fails to pass certain bills. Both also insist it is up to the other party and its presidential nominee to decide whether to cooperate.

But many lawmakers and aides say success is easier to claim than blame is to assign, so at least some deals will be made this month.

"November elections tend to focus people's attention," Mr. Lockhart said.

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