Riots, Budget Pose Dilemma for Congress Washington's Tough Task: Trying to Spend on Social Programs in Wake of L.A. Unrest and Balance the Budget

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AT urgent speed, Congress appears to be running in two radically different directions: toward spending programs to address the nation's urban crisis and toward a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.

This being an election year, both are by definition aimed at proving to a weary electorate that Washington is capable of firm action.

The Los Angeles riots have sent Congress and the president scurrying to new-old programs and have produced the first White House invitation of the year for congressional leaders of both parties to come and talk compromise on an urban agenda.

Emergency funding of $800 million to repair Los Angeles and Chicago has bipartisan support and should be approved quickly.

The White House and Congress have found some common ground on the longer-term agenda - such as the need to try urban "enterprise zones" - but the specifics, cost, and source of funding remained unclear after Tuesday's meeting.

Meanwhile, the budget deficit, creeping toward $400 billion, is strangling the United States economy's ability to grow, many members of Congress say. For the first time, longtime efforts to require a balanced budget constitutionally - forcing Draconian cuts in government spending - have a good shot at success.

But how can Congress contemplate doing both at the same time?

Some congressional observers respond with a business-as-usual shrug. Others justify the apparent contradiction by saying that if they could write policy themselves, they would find money for urban America by cutting costly programs they believe are unnecessary - and reduce the deficit at the same time.

"It's not necessarily an inconsistency," says Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts. "If you insist on spending billions to keep US troops in Europe and $40 billion on a space station, then it's inconsistent. But if we would do the right thing and reduce military spending, then you can have both." Both can be done

Dave Mason, a Congress-watcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation, also does not see an unavoidable inconsistency in the drive for a balanced budget and a revived urban agenda.

In urban policy, "money is not the issue at all," Mr. Mason says. He points out that a lot of Housing and Ubran Development Secretary Jack Kemp's proposals aim to be revenue-neutral by redirecting existing resources.

"There's a fairly decent prospect the president and a majority in Congress will pass something to appear active," he says. "If the president puts out a bold program and pushes for it, there's a chance it could be effective. But if he leads with compromise, it won't go anywhere. …