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WNY LAWMAKERS FACE REAL ISSUES, BUT BOTH PARTIES SOUND OPTIMISTIC

This is not yet a Monica-free zone, but slowly Congress is turning its attention away from scandal and toward countless pocketbook issues that matter deeply to Western New York.

The question is, how much can this Congress -- consumed by partisanship in the House and distracted by an impeachment trial in the Senate -- accomplish? No one knows, of course, but both Republicans and Democrats sound optimistic.

"If the Republicans reach across the aisle and are willing to compromise, we could pass a lot of things," said Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda.

One thing's for sure: The 106th Congress will try to accomplish a lot.

Congressional leaders are eyeing an overhaul of Social Security, health care reform and tax cuts. Meanwhile, local legislators will push for lower air fares and other measures to help the upstate economy.

The same obstacles stand in front of all of those goals: the impeachment distraction, and the narrow six-vote Republican majority in the House.

Knowing that, incoming House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said earlier this month that he would frequently reach out to Democrats to try to heal the wounds caused by the impeachment battle.

Western New York's newest member of Congress, Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Springville, said that's the only way things will get done.

"I'm an optimist," Reynolds said. "I have to believe we will be trying to get started on some things. But if the parties get into the politics, it will evaporate."

Topping everyone's list of priorities is Social Security reform -- a key economic issue everywhere, but especially in aging metropolitan areas such as Buffalo.

So far, though, there's no consensus on what ought to be done to put Social Security on a firm financial footing long before 2032, when legions of retiring baby boomers would drive the system into bankruptcy if nothing is done to prevent it.

Republicans and moderates such as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., talk of setting up individual Social Security accounts that would allow individuals to invest part of their payroll taxes in the stock market. But that idea draws plenty of opposition from moderate Republicans such as Rep. Jack Quinn, R-Hamburg, and Democrats of all stripes.

"We all agree that we have to do something with Social Security," Quinn said. "But I'm very concerned about going private. I say that knowing that we just went through a big stock market dip a few months ago. That was a wake-up call."

The White House and Congress appear to be playing a game of chicken on the issue, with neither President Clinton nor GOP lawmakers willing to move first, fearing the other side will use the issue as a cudgel against the enemy.

Health care reform seems to be similarly stuck. Both parties say they want to give consumers more rights to contest decisions made by health maintenance organizations, but they disagree over whether patients should have the right to sue HMOs.

The issue is so important, though, that Rep. Amo Houghton, R-Corning, predicts that there's a good chance for a compromise bill. Houghton, newly appointed chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee that oversees the IRS, says the odds of major tax reform -- such as a flat tax -- aren't as good.

"You'll see some tax cuts, but as for major reform, I don't see that jelling. It would involve too many big social changes."

Another idea that has died in Congress numerous times -- legislation that would allow banks to provide all sorts of other financial services -- will spring back to life again this year. LaFalce, the top Democrat on the Banking Committee, will help to revive it.

On the local level, the continued federal pressure for lower air fares will take center stage again in 1999. Buffalo got a boost on that issue when Quinn got appointed to the House Aviation Subcommittee, which will draw up a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, possibly including provisions aimed at boosting air service in midsize cities such as Buffalo.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., hopes to provide some of that momentum. After making the upstate economy a keystone issue in the campaign that unseated Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, he is now preparing a bill aimed at boosting airline competition.

Schumer said he's also looking at electric utility deregulation and other proposals to help upstate, and is hoping to act as a high-profile salesman for the area.

"I'm going to make a pitch to New York City companies that they ought to locate operations upstate," Schumer said. "And if Dennis Gorski says he has a line on a company in San Francisco that might come to Buffalo, I'll fly to San Francisco and try to bring them here."

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