Surprise: Congress Matters This fall Republican legislators have a plan to fight their do-nothing image and avoid a budget showdown. Their wranglings may help choose the next President.
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Nobody's been thinking much about Congress lately. All eyes have been on the presidential contest, and rightly so. With Al Gore's wise choice of Senator Joseph Lieberman as his running mate, and Gore's well-received convention speech, the race could be one of the closest and most interesting in recent memory. But that's a reason to focus on Congress. What lawmakers do--or don't do--this autumn could have a major impact on the top of the ticket, since even small tremors in public opinion could prove pivotal.

At first blush the Democrats and Gore would seem to possess the political advantage on Capitol Hill. After all, Gore would like to run against a rancorous, do-nothing Congress, and President Clinton can make sure that happens with his veto pen. What's more, the Democratic minority, especially in the Senate, can slow progress to a crawl whenever it wishes. In Congress, stopping things is easier than propelling them forward.

The legislative issues also favor the Democrats. Now that budget deficits have transmuted into surpluses, the question is how to spend rather than how to save. Polls show that voters want to expand education, health care, and environmental protection. The public has long trusted Democrats, rather than Republicans, to handle all three well.

The picture, then, looks pretty bleak for the GOP and, by inference, its nominee, George W. Bush. Clinton could hammer the Republicans in charge for falling short on such popular matters as school construction spending, prescription-drug benefits, and a Patients' Bill of Rights. The President could also take his time about rejecting such legislation, setting the Congress up for the Do-Nothing label.

A Republican catastrophe would ensue if Clinton held up enough routine appropriations bills over issues that made the GOP look bad. A government shutdown in that case would be blamed on Tom DeLay and Trent Lott. Bush and the Republican majority in the House would go down in flames.

So much for a Democratic pipe dream. The real world is less black and white. Irresponsible behavior--like closing government over political disputes--would probably hurt both parties, and might hurt Clinton more since he is, nominally, in control. In fact, Republicans, once seared by shutdown brinksmanship, already have developed careful plans that, they think, will avoid the worst. House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) says he anticipates passing a catchall spending bill devoid of any special-interest amendments to keep the government operating through the election and until next year. Clinton probably can't get away with vetoing that, so don't count on a government shutdown this year.

In addition, the Republicans might do a good deal better than sidestepping the precipice. Congress must pass permanent normal trade relations with China this year; it's a priority for both Clinton and the GOP. If you were wondering why the Republicans in the Senate have stalled the all-but-certain passage of this free-trade measure, here's one reason: The closer to the election the trade agreement passes, the more flack Democrats will get from unionized voters who oppose it. Republican leaders hope to siphon away voters from Gore, perhaps to Ralph Nader, or to dampen labor turnout altogether in such battleground states as Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The result will be fewer votes for Al Gore on Election Day. (For more on labor, see next story.)

Republicans, for a change, have also been clever about tax-cut politics, and, as a result, could win supporters. The public isn't screaming for tax relief--economic conditions have been far too lush for them to worry about keeping a few extra pennies in their pockets. But citizens are nettled by a few quirks in the tax code that they see as unfair. They don't like to be penalized for getting married, and they think they should be able to put more money into their 401(k)s. The GOP has teed up tax cuts directed at solving those problems and is poised to forgo most others.

Democrats in tight races will have trouble defending the President's vetoes of such popular tax changes, and even more difficulty explaining why they didn't try to override those vetoes. Watch these votes. Majority control of the House could turn on the outcome of as few as 17 toss-up congressional races. Even small blocs of angry voters could make all the difference this year.

Bush himself may have altered the congressional calculus. He has introduced a new tone to Republicanism. By spotlighting women, minorities, and children--and keeping Newt Gingrich and his harsh politics at bay--the Texas governor has staked his party's claim on the ascendant issues that have long been Democratic. As a result, the Republican agenda in Congress is far more compassionate (read: Democratic) than it was just a couple of years ago. And it would be hard for even a disinterested voter not to notice at least a little. Democrats call this a charade, and it might be. Nonetheless, the legislative battles on Capitol Hill could determine who wins the argument--and the White House.