Big issues await Congress as budget deadline, campaign loom
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After a monthlong summer recess, Congress returns Tuesday to face a stack of contentious measures and a looming struggle for control of both chambers.
Budget bills, normalized trade with China, rival plans for prescription drugs for seniors under Medicare and a proposed $1 increase in the minimum wage await action when the House and Senate come back after Labor Day. The Republican leadership in both houses wants to wrap up that business by mid-October, allowing members to spend more time campaigning.
Some compromises are possible after talks between President Clinton and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, last week. In particular, the White House expects a deal on the minimum wage, with Republicans going along with a raise in exchange for Democratic support for some small-business tax breaks.
Clinton has been successful in previous showdowns with congressional Republicans. Now, he seems willing to use his final legislative battles to help Democrats get elected and seal his legacy.
"The first thing we're certain to do is continue this path of fiscal responsibility that has brought economic progress to this country," White House Chief of Staff John Podesta said Monday.
"We want to raise the minimum wage by a dollar as the president said in his
radio address, and I think we're going to do that," he added.
Both sides have incentives to cut a deal. Republicans want to be able to point to concrete legislation as they campaign to keep control of Congress for another two years.
But they don't want to be seen as having given in to Clinton's terms, which could keep the party's conservative core sitting on its hands in November. Some Republicans, like Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, say Congress should put off action until the voters can offer their input in November.
"I think we ought to wrap up our business and go out and let the American people tell us which way they'd like the country to go," McConnell said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Democrats could dig in their heels, hoping to run against a "do-nothing Congress" -- but then Republicans would get credit for any legislative victories.
The Senate still has to take up the China trade agreement that passed the House in June after a pitched battle that split both parties. The measure would permanently grant the People's Republic the normal access to U.S. markets most other U.S. economic partners enjoy, ending the annual vote on granting Beijing "most favored nation" status.
Republicans will also attempt to override Clinton's veto of a prized GOP bill that would have repealed the federal estate tax and the so-called "marriage penalty," but Democrats are confident that they have the votes to sustain the vetoes.
But the biggest task awaiting lawmakers is to pass the remaining budget bills that fund federal operations before the new fiscal year begins October 1. Only two of 13 spending measures needed to fund the government beyond that date have been passed by Congress and signed by the president: Democrats and Republicans remain at odds over education spending, funding the United Nations and environmental issues.
Clinton has accused Republicans of cutting too deeply into spending proposals, such as capital improvements for schools, in order to provide election-year tax cuts. He has threatened to veto several spending bills.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, accused Clinton last week of trying to engineer a budgetary "train wreck" to damage GOP chances in November.
"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," Lott said.
Podesta dismissed that claim Sunday in an appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation."
"We'll sit here and we'll work right up to the election to get the important priorities done for the American people," he said.
CNN Correspondent Kelly Wallace and Reuters contributed to this report.