in Washington - In a memo to his colleagues just before the Easter recess, House Majority Leader Dick Armey acknowledged that "This year started as the second year of a session always starts, somewhat slowly." But he promised at the time to push quickly through an agenda that looked like a social conservative's christmas wish list. Last week, the wrapping started coming off some of the goodies.
The biggest breakthrough came in education, as the Senate finally passed legislation allowing parents to establish tax-free savings accounts for their children's education in either public or private schools. Sponsored by Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), the bill raised the annual allowable contribution to "A-plus" accounts from $500 to $2,000, while at the same time extending the benefit to cover not just college tuition, but any K-12 educational expense incurred in public, private, religious, or even home schools. Parents, relatives, and other concerned parties can put after-tax dollars into the accounts; the interest earned is then tax exempt so long as it is spent on educational expenses. Similar legislation passed the House last year on a vote of 230-198.
Not surprisingly, President Clinton, at the behest of his NEA political benefactors, has threatened to veto the measure, which failed to achieve the two-thirds vote necessary for an override. Still, a veto would be politically risky, with polls showing 66 percent support for the concept among registered voters.
If the president carries through on his promised veto, he may want to make sure his stamp pad has plenty of ink. House Republicans were confident at week's end that another NEA bogeyman-school vouchers for District of Columbia students-would pass in that chamber, making it second in line for a Clinton veto. Voucher proponents hoped to turn up the pressure on the president by running a series of ads urging District parents to make their wishes known. In one radio spot, a woman tells how her neighbors banded together to raise money to rescue her son from "the violence and chaos of the D.C. school system." Then she urges her neighbors to "Call President Clinton at 456-1414. Ask him to sign the D.C. scholarship bill so that more children have a chance to go to a better, safer school."
Following the House's lead, the Senate last week approved payment of some $800 million in "back dues" to the United Nations-but only with a provision that would block overseas recipients of U.S. aid from lobbying foreign governments for expanded abortion rights. Conservatives have long complained that groups such as International Planned Parenthood campaign for liberalized abortion laws in foreign countries, and that U.S. aid creates the impression that America approves such efforts. Although private non-profits are already barred from using U.S. funds for abortion lobbying, pro-life advocates pointed out that such aid merely freed up other funds for lobbying efforts. The new language, passed 51-49, forbids recipients of U.S. aid from engaging in any pro-abortion lobbying, even using their own funds.
Despite President Clinton's fervent desire to pay off the UN, he has threatened a veto of any bill that ties payments of back dues to the abortion issue. Republicans, however, upped the ante by linking yet another Clinton priority-$18 billion in emergency funding for the International Monetary Fund-to the pro-life provision. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), had tried to push IMF funding separately but finally bowed to strong pressure from House Speaker Newt Gingrich to keep the two international appropriations linked. The president may still veto, but it will cost him: Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) has vowed that the Senate will not take up the issue again, period.
One final action in the House drew less emotional response, yet it promises dramatically to cramp the style of judges who make law from the bench instead of merely interpreting it, as allowed by the Constitution. Among other things, the Judicial Reform Act creates a three-judge panel to evaluate complaints that voter-approved state ballot initiatives are unconstitutional. Currently, the ACLU can stop such laws from going into effect by finding a single District Court judge who will declare the action unconstitutional. A three-judge panel would make it much harder for groups like the ACLU to circumvent the will of the voters in statewide referenda such as California's recent effort to ban affirmative action in state hiring.
After months of criticism from social conservatives, congressional Republicans are ready for some recognition of their efforts. "We've been called the 'do-nothing' Congress," says Horace Cooper, an Armey spokesman. "The truth is, we're the 'do nothing liberal' Congress." Now that committees have finished their work, Mr. Cooper promises that voters will see a flurry of action on bills ranging from religious freedom to persecution of overseas Christians to gambling on the Internet.
To many, that would be like Christmas in May. They'll just have to keep an eye on the Grinch.