Several of President Clinton's main legislative proposals, which attracted relatively little attention while the spotlight was on his plan for universal health insurance, seem now to be in danger of dying in the five or six weeks remaining in the 103rd Congress.
Republicans in the Senate are trying to block a bill that would permit a global free-trade agreement to go into effect. House and Senate negotiators are miles apart on a measure to rewrite campaign finance rules.Other important bills in trouble are those that would expand competition in the telecommunications industry, extend the Superfund law that requires polluters to clean up toxic wastes, impose higher fees for mining on federal land and permit banks to open out-of-state branches.
The lawmakers reconvene Monday after their summer recess and will probably adjourn no later than the third week in October. That is a short time to address the many matters still on the agenda. Measures like welfare reform that are not already far along in the pipeline stand no chance of enactment.
But administration officials say they expect the snags to be worked out on some of these measures like the trade and Superfund bills. Approval of these bills, they say, would give Clinton and Democrats in Congress a political boost going into the November elections, even if little can be salvaged from the president's health proposal.
"I think when the smoke clears, you'll find that we have been very successful in Congress this fall," said a presidential assistant who is working on some of the most important legislation.
Democratic leaders in Congress take a similar position. "I'm full of optimism," said Thomas Foley, the speaker of the House.
But Republicans, aiming for a big victory at the polls on Nov. 8, seem determined to block bills that could improve the Democrats' prospects in the election. Foley conceded that measures like the trade bill could not be enacted over solid Republican opposition.
Here is the outlook for some of the main legislation this fall:
Last December, after years of negotiations, the United States and more than 100 other countries
concluded one of the broadest trade agreements in history. It would cut tariffs around the world by a third and expand the free-trade rules of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to cover new industries ranging from farming to accounting.
Until recently, the bill that would allow U.S. participation in the trade agreement seemed headed for clear sailing on Capitol Hill. It was strongly backed by President Clinton and apparently by most Republicans in Congress.
Then late last month, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the Republican leader, said the legislation should be delayed until next year because of questions about its cost and its effect on American labor and environment laws.
Such a delay would be a serious international embarrassment to the president, since all the countries that have signed the pact have agreed informally that it should go into effect on Jan. 1.
Unless Dole changes his mind, the measure stands little chance of passage this year.
One of Clinton's central campaign promises in 1992 was to change the way political campaigns are financed. Last year, the Senate and House passed separate bills that would set voluntary spending ceilings for congressional candidates, provide incentives for compliance and limit contributions from interest groups.
But for almost a year now, negotiators from the Senate and House have been unable to resolve their differences. The main disagreement is over restrictions on contributions by political action committees. The impasse seems unbreakable.
The prospects are much better for legislation now before a House-Senate conference committee that would tighten the laws on registration and disclosure by lobbyists and restrict the gifts and other favors lawmakers could accept.
A bill passed by the Senate would prohibit members of Congress and their staffs from accepting gifts, meals and entertainment from anyone except legitimate friends and relatives.
The House bill is more lenient. It would prohibit gifts from lobbyists, but lawmakers could continue to accept meals, entertainment and gifts worth less than $100 from others.
The Superfund law, which requires polluters to pay to clean up toxic waste, expires at the end of this month. Almost everyone agrees that it must be extended and improved to avoid the protracted litigation that has tied the program in knots. This is probably the Clinton administration's top priority for this year in terms of the environment. But Congress may well put the matter off until 1995.
The Clinton administration and most lawmakers would like to allow cable television and telephone companies to enter each other's markets and make it easier for the regional Bell companies to compete in the long-distance telephone business. The House has passed such a bill. But the legislation has run into trouble over details in the Senate and has no better than an even chance of becoming law.
The Senate and House have passed measures that for the first time would impose fees for mining hard-rock minerals like gold and copper on federal land. The House bill would be much more costly to the mining companies and raise more revenue. Lawmakers from the West are relatively more powerful in the Senate than in the House, and some Western senators have threatened a filibuster if they are not satisfied with the final legislation. A compromise is likely but by no means certain.
A bill that would permit banks to open branches across state lines has cleared a Senate-House conference committee but has run into a procedural snag in the Senate.