What's Next on the Hill

Declaring the first session of the 105th Congress "a pretty productive session" that merits an "A" compared to other Congresses, but a "B-minus" compared to Republicans' expectations, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., late last week outlined a 1998 agenda featuring action on a long-term highway spending bill, school choice vouchers for children in the District of Columbia, IRS reform, and an expansive debate on the federal budget.

Also possible, Gingrich told reporters, is limited legislation based on the settlement reached this summer between state attorneys general and tobacco companies, and another attempt to renew the president's fast track authority to negotiate trade deals. But across the partisan aisle, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., said the first session of this Congress was largely a "waste of time," and joined with other Democratic leaders to stake out a competing agenda for next year.

The top four House Democrats appeared at a news conference last Thursday to detail nine priorities for the second session of the 105th Congress, including: education, campaign finance reform, retirement security, managed care reform, pay equity, tax reform, environmental protection, fighting drugs and crime, and child care. "All of those things ought to be accomplished," said Gephardt.

The Democrats, in addition to detailing their agenda at the news conference, first slammed this year's Republican activities and the GOP's plans for next year.

"This session has been largely a waste of time," Gephardt said.

Discussing next year's agenda, he added: "[Republicans] are kind of cleaning out the old Contract With America closet and they are coming out with dustballs."

Gephardt also assailed Republicans for not passing IRS reform this year and accused them of stalling in order to grandstand on the issue during an election year.

For his part, House Minority Whip Bonior said that Democrats fought hard this year to defend public schools from GOP assaults.

In addition to the nine priorities, Gephardt said that House and Senate Democrats, along with President Clinton, plan to unveil a joint agenda in the next few weeks.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vic Fazio of California said Democrats are wary of proposals being considered by Republicans to move small campaign finance reform bills next year.

Earlier in the day, Gingrich said Republicans were committed to holding a vote on campaign reform "some time in March."

However, GOP leaders have yet to determine what bill, or bills, will come to the floor, and House Oversight Chairman Thomas and Republican Policy Committee Chairman Christopher Cox of California said several smaller bills, rather than one large piece of reform legislation, might be considered on the floor.

Fazio said most of those bills are targeted "to make political advantage to the other party" and are a "formula for gridlock."

On other issues, Gingrich cited this year's bipartisan balanced budget accord and House passage of IRS reform legislation as notable examples that House Republicans, having successfully retained their majority, "accomplished a number of the things we started out to do [in 1994]."

But Gingrich called Congress' failure to pass fast track legislation and litigation reform "huge disappointments" that are "bad for the country."

Gingrich said the pro-fast track coalition only needed "about eight to 10 votes" more to pass the bill, which was pulled from the floor schedule early Monday morning after supporters came up short.

The speaker said he hoped next year that "enough people would come to their senses that we would be able to bring" fast track up successfully, and that he "would be open to looking at how we do it," in terms of whether Republicans would push for a comprehensive or a more limited fast track bill.

Although Congress failed to reauthorize the six-year Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act before adjourning, Gingrich said that bill should come up early next year and that it would have to be considered within the spending limits of the balanced budget agreement.

But he was optimistic that government revenues will continue to outstrip spending, and predicted Congress "will be in a position to have the resources for dealing with ISTEA."

Gingrich said he intends to launch next year's budget cycle "very early" and to simultaneously conduct a larger dialogue about long-term issues such as what to do with anticipated future surpluses and how to provide Social Security for aging baby boomers.

The speaker also called for a national debate on replacing the current tax code with either a national sales tax, a modified flat tax or a pure flat tax, and said it is "very likely" the House will vote next year on legislation to sunset the current tax code by 2001.

The House could also take up limited legislation aimed at curbing teen smoking and using increased tobacco taxes to fund expanded children's healthcare programs, said Gingrich.

But he added he is "very cautious about some of the precedents they would like us to set" by enacting the tobacco settlement into law wholesale, saying, "I don't think that's something the Congress ought to rush into."

Further tax cuts are also on the House's 1998 agenda, including limiting the so-called marriage penalty and possibly reducing marginal tax rates.

Gingich said he "would not be at all surprised to see" the redefinition of independent contractors initially proposed in, but later dropped from, the balanced budget package brought up next year as well.

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