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102nd Congress' session long on politics, short on legislation

The 102nd Congress is bumping to an end, a two-year season of ill will and scandal that left many of its members bruised and embittered _ and a record number contemplating life out of office.

From its first vote _ to go to war in the Persian Gulf _ to its override of President Bush's veto of a cable TV bill, the term was marked by confrontation and partisanship. At the end, there was little to show for it.

Even the leaving was messy. The House finished Tuesday, but the Senate remained bogged down by delaying tactics over tax, water and energy legislation that put off final adjournment until today or later.

"This place has become so divisive that nobody sits down and says, "What can we do for the people?'

" said Rep. Mickey Edwards, R-Okla., who is among those who won't be back.

It was ultimately a Congress that recognized its own unpopularity and sought quietly to get out of the way. Its Democratic leaders left the stage to their presidential candidate, Bill Clinton.

Election-year congresses always fall prey to a period when politics overtakes policy, a time lawmakers call "the silly season." But this time it seemed to pervade the entire session.

It was a period when "gridlock" became part of the political lexicon and the public approval ratings of politicians dipped to all-time lows.

Items that had been high priorities for action _ health care reform, a crime bill, economic revival _ in the end were overshadowed by the presidential election campaign and deferred until next year.

Other items, such as a bill requiring employers to grant time off to workers to care for newborns or sick family members, fell victim to President Bush's veto.

Ironically, in a year when all preached the need to face Americans' domestic concerns, some of the leading accomplishments were in foreign policy.

It was this Congress that wrote a formal end to the Cold War, approving the first treaty limiting strategic nuclear weapons, forcing Bush to accept a ban on underground nuclear weapons testing and providing aid to the states of the former Soviet Union.

And after a yearlong estrangement between the United States and Israel, Congress finally approved a five-year, $10-billion program of loan guarantees to help the Middle Eastern ally absorb hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants.

Domestic accomplishments were relatively modest: a major highway construction bill and civil rights legislation, both done in 1991; and the bill re-regulating cable television, disaster relief for Florida, Louisiana and Hawaii, and extension of unemployment benefits. There was still the possibility of a modest energy bill.

Where they fell short, Democrats blamed Bush.

"The record . . . will be one of substantial accomplishment, but with much more that could have been done but for the president's unwise and excessive use of the veto power," said Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine.

Through it all ran an overtone of scandal. The reputation of the Senate was tattered by the Keating savings-and-loan scandal, then by the televised spectacle of Anita Hill's sexual harassment accusations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

In the House, word that members had enjoyed interest-free loans by writing bad checks at their own bank struck a raw nerve with the public. The House bank scandal was followed by a mini-scandal involving misconduct in the House post office.

By the end of the session, a record 19 House members and one senator had been rejected by the voters back home in primary elections. And far more, 65 in the House and seven in the Senate, had opted to leave voluntarily.

Congress' Democratic leaders, who last November were saying, "Wait 'til next year," now are anticipating a Clinton win on Election Day and are saying, with a much different meaning, "Wait 'til next year."

Major issues

Here are the major accomplishments of the 102nd Congress as well as the big issues that were addressed but left unresolved:

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Accomplished

Civil rights: Made it easier for minorities and women to win discrimination suits against employers and established punitive damages for intentional discrimination based on sex, age or disability.

Cable television: Re-regulated cable television rates and services.

Higher education: Expanded eligibility for government grants and loans to middle-income students.

Defense transition: Began rechanneling some money devoted to defense to help retrain hundreds of thousands of military and defense plant workers losing their jobs with the end of the Cold War.

Coping with recession: Voted two extensions in emergency unemployment benefits for people losing their jobs because of the recession.

Infant formula: Sharply increased penalties on companies convicted of cheating the government by fixing prices for infant formula given to the poor.

Transportation: Authorized $155-billion over five years to upgrade highways, mass-transit systems and bridges to address the nation's crumbling transportation infrastructure.

Nuclear arms: Ratified first treaty reducing the number of U.S. and formerly Soviet strategic nuclear weapons. Ordered a moratorium on and eventual end to atomic weapons testing.

Foreign policy: Approved a $417-million aid package for former Soviet republics to foster their conversion from centrally planned to free market economies and to promote cultural ties.

Unresolved

Abortion: Legislation promised by Democratic leaders to prohibit states from imposing restrictions on abortion never reached the floor in the House or Senate out of fears by supporters it would be watered down or defeated. Bush won five veto showdowns with Congress over abortion-related issues.

Health care: Democrats and Bush put forth conflicting plans for addressing skyrocketing health care costs and the nearly 40-million Americans without medical insurance. Neither received action.

Secondary education: The House passed an $800-million package of block grants to state and local governments for improving public secondary and elementary schools. Republicans in the Senate blocked final action after Democrats rejected Bush's proposal to start subsidizing private schools.

Economic recovery: Bush and Republicans rejected Democrats' proposals to stimulate the economy with middle-income tax cuts that would be financed with higher taxes on the wealthy. Democrats rejected Bush's call for a broad reduction in capital gains taxes.

Crime: The House and Senate each passed broad anti-crime bills imposing a five-day waiting period for buying a handgun, expanding the federal death penalty to cover 50 more offenses and stretching prison sentences for crimes involving the use of guns. Bush and Senate Republicans blocked final action after Democrats rejected Bush proposals to deny successive appeals to death row inmates and let police seize evidence without warrants.

Campaign reform: Congress passed legislation to restrict how much House and Senate candidates can spend on their campaigns and to substitute public financing for some of the money now raised by special interests. Bush vetoed it.

Family aid: Congress passed a bill to make employers of more than 50 people provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family emergencies. Bush vetoed it.

Still pending

Energy: Senate was scheduled to act today on a House-passed bill to revamp energy policy with new focus on conservation and making it easier to build new nuclear plants. Bush is expected to sign it.

_ Associated Press

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