When conservatives in the House last week led an insurrection that sharply scaled back antiterrorism legislation the Senate had approved overwhelmingly, they underscored a dilemma coiled inside Sen. Bob Dole's new political strategy.
With his party's presidential nomination all but in hand, Dole now wants to use his platform as Senate majority leader to both demonstrate that he can get things done and establish politically attractive contrasts to President Clinton.
But his efforts on both fronts are complicated by resistance from conservatives in the House, particularly House freshmen, to following his lead on issues from the budget to health insurance reform to terrorism.
"Will I go along with things for purposes of a presidential race that aren't good for the country? The answer is no," said freshman Rep. Mark W. Neumann (R-Wis.).
On some issues, congressional Republicans have recently compromised to serve Dole's interest of placing legislation on Clinton's desk. Long-stalled bills reforming civil litigation and creating a line-item veto for the president are leading examples.
But Wednesday's House vote to virtually throw out the antiterrorism bill Dole shepherded through the Senate demonstrates that House Republicans will only go so far in sublimating their ideological goals to Dole's political imperatives.
Clinton administration officials and Democratic strategists view the House version of the bill as a ripe opportunity to paint Republicans as soft on terrorism and beholden to gun-owner groups that opposed the bill. "We can't let the gun lobby turn America into a safe house for terrorists," Clinton said in denouncing the House bill during his radio address Saturday.
But freshman Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), who led the effort to rewrite the bill, shows no sign of softening his stand to reduce Dole's political difficulties. When asked if Dole, as the party's presumptive presidential nominee, deserved special deference in shaping the final antiterrorism bill, Barr said flatly: "No. I represent my constituents, and my constituents are the people who are telling me that these provisions," including expanded federal law enforcement powers in such areas as wiretaps and increased federal controls over items such as explosives, "are both unnecessary and violative of civil rights."
Dole, who moved to the brink of the nomination over the last two weeks, plans to spend much of the next few months in Washington, conducting his campaign from the familiar ground of the Senate floor. Dole aides hope to frame the choice for the fall election by advancing legislation that illuminates his differences with the president.
Dole and House Republicans are still debating the extent to which they want to produce bills that Clinton will sign--as a means of demonstrating progress--as opposed to bills he will veto, which helps them sharpen contrasts between the parties.
But before Dole can do either, he must first overcome long-standing divisions within Republican ranks that have prevented Congress from taking final action on a host of complicated issues.
Last week, Republicans twice showed willingness to compromise among themselves for the sake of producing legislation that Dole--and GOP lawmakers--could tout on the campaign trail. House Republicans made a major concession when they gave up a wide-ranging legal-reform bill in favor of a much narrower Senate measure.
Warring House and Senate Republicans also broke a lengthy logjam over line-item veto legislation. In that case, however, it was Dole and other Senate Republicans who had to make concessions and accept a compromise more in line with the House's bill, which went further than the Senate's in enhancing the president's power.
After months of internal disputes, congressional Republicans are also nearing consensus on a scaled-back regulatory reform bill that would give small-business owners increased standing to challenge federal regulations.
But agreement among Senate and House Republicans has proved to be more elusive on the budget, where Dole's common interest with Clinton in moving forward is running afoul of a large group of conservative House Republicans.
Last week, Congress stumbled toward a resolution on the fiscal 1996 budget with action on several fronts: Both chambers passed a one-week temporary spending bill, as the Senate shaped a compromise on domestic spending, and the GOP leadership agreed on a bill to raise the federal debt ceiling.
Yet some House Republicans were complaining about what they saw as the dangerous conciliatory impulses of Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), which they feared could work against their political interests, if not those of Dole himself.
"We will do everything we can to keep the government running and work with the president to keep the government running," said Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.). "But we will not continue to decorate the national budget like a Christmas tree with the president's pet projects."
Some Republicans fretted that Dole and his allies had conceded too much to Clinton on domestic spending in fashioning the Senate version of the latest appropriation bill to fund the government through September.
One sign of House Republicans' restiveness came during House debate on that bill. Even though it provided less than the Senate bill for domestic programs, conservatives complained that it cut too little. With House GOP moderates simultaneously complaining that the bill cut too much, the legislation squeaked through the House by only a 209-206 vote, despite support from the leadership.
Similar disputes involving Dole and House Republicans could emerge over legislation that would enable workers to retain health insurance coverage if they are laid off. Dole has said he would like to move the bill, sponsored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.), through Congress to increase security for economically anxious middle-class workers. But House Republicans plan to add controversial provisions, such as medical savings accounts, that greatly reduce the bill's prospects for Senate approval.
The antiterrorism legislation now heading into a joint House-Senate conference committee presents Dole's dilemma in perhaps the most stark terms.
Clinton proposed the legislation last April, days after the bombing that destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City. Last June, the Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation sponsored by Dole and Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) that embodied the Clinton proposal with modest changes.
But an unusual alliance of civil liberties and gun-owner groups, which believed the Senate legislation granted too much authority to federal law enforcement officials, undermined support for the package in the House.
In months of negotiations with conservatives led by Barr, House sponsors removed Senate-approved provisions granting the FBI greater authority to use wiretaps and allowing the military to assist law enforcement officials in cases involving chemical and biological weapons.
Then, last Wednesday, Barr won approval of an amendment that further reduced the bill by eliminating provisions allowing the secretary of state to designate foreign groups as "terrorist organizations"--a change that effectively eliminated the legislation's prohibition on fund-raising in the United States for groups such as the Palestinian Hamas organization. Barr's amendment killed provisions that would make it easier to extradite suspected terrorists. His changes would also make it more difficult for prosecutors to convict gun dealers accused of selling weapons to suspected terrorists.
Administration officials and congressional Democrats say that all of these changes have effectively eviscerated the bill--and created a dilemma for Dole. "You know whose problem this is? Bob Dole's," said one White House official. "Now he's got to take on the NRA."
Dole aides acknowledge that the House vote has complicated the politics of the antiterrorism legislation. Dole, they say, wants to focus attention on the provision in the bill that limits appeals by prisoners on death row--reforms that liberals will fervently pressure the president to oppose.
One Dole aide said that, "obviously, it will be easier" to keep the debate centered on the death-row appeals if the House agrees to restore some of the antiterrorist provisions it struck from the bill. But that won't be an easy sell.
In an interview, Barr said he was open to "very narrowly crafted" changes that would allow the government to designate foreign groups as terrorist organizations, but beyond that, "there is really very little room for negotiation."
As the antiterrorism bill moves into conference, Dole finds himself caught between that unyielding sentiment and the administration's eagerness to attack the House version of the bill as soft on terrorism. It is a tightrope Dole has mastered before--but one that grows increasingly demanding as he attempts to balance not only the competing interests of House firebrands and more cautious Senate Republicans, but his own dual roles as legislative leader and presidential candidate.
Times staff writers Janet Hook, Jonathan Peterson and Paul Richter contributed to this story.