Hopes to Send Dole Off in Blaze of Glory May Fizzle
As Congress prepares to bid Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole a grand farewell this week, Republicans hope they can put a capstone on his 35-year legislative career and give his presidential campaign a shot of energy it badly needs.
Senate Republicans, rolling out the drums for Dole to march off into his full-time presidential campaign, are staging a week of votes designed to showcase his differences with President Clinton on issues from the budget to defense policy.
But a series of obstacles has made it increasingly likely that the week will wind up more closely resembling a demonstration of gridlock than of effective lawmaking, mocking Dole’s stump speech claim of being “a doer, not a talker.”
The climax of Dole’s swan song will be another vote on the balanced-budget amendment to the constitution that even the Kansas senator himself acknowledges is doomed to defeat. Another showdown is planned on a missile defense system Clinton opposes, but Democrats are sure to block a vote. And big hurdles lie in the way of finishing action on a new medical insurance plan, once seen as a potential centerpiece of Dole’s send-off celebration.
If events play out as expected, Dole’s final days may vividly illustrate the political paralysis that threatens to grip Congress as the presidential election approaches. The events may also illustrate the political wisdom of Dole’s decision to resign from Congress and escape the pesky Democratic opposition and unwieldy legislative machinery that have made it so difficult for him to run his presidential campaign from the floor of the Senate.
Dole’s Republican allies are determined to make his departure a political triumph, even if he leaves with no new legislative accomplishments.
“A lot of us would like to say goodbye to him in fitting fashion,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “We want to make sure Bob Dole goes out in a blaze of glory.”
For all the drum rolling, however, Dole’s Republican colleagues still do not know exactly when he is going to leave--much to the frustration of senators who are competing for GOP leadership positions that will open up in his wake.
Dole aides say his last day in the Senate could come as early as Thursday, but more likely will be early next week.
In a campaign speech Monday in Michigan, Dole promised to bring the balanced-budget amendment to a vote before he leaves.
He is suffering no illusions about its outcome. The amendment failed by one vote last year, and advocates have since lost ground because a special election in Oregon replaced a Republican who supported the amendment with a Democrat opposed to it.
But Dole will use the impending vote--and another possible vote this week on the Republicans’ final budget blueprint for the coming fiscal year--to try to reclaim the anti-deficit issue from Clinton, who has said he favors balancing the budget but opposes the constitutional amendment.
“When it comes to balancing the budget, as with everything else, Bill Clinton’s promises are like the tape in ‘Mission: Impossible.’ They self destruct in 10 seconds,” Dole said in his Michigan speech.
“If you truly want to stand with the American people, tell your Democratic colleagues in the Senate to vote for the balanced-budget amendment,” Dole said, addressing Clinton. “Do it in public. Do it now. No winks. No nods. No behind-the-scenes maneuvers. No excuses. Do it loudly. Do it clearly. As they say in the commercial, ‘Just do it.’ ”
Clinton responded by urging Dole to come back to Washington and negotiate a specific agreement to balance the budget.
“Why don’t we do it right now?,” Clinton told reporters. “We can balance the budget tomorrow. All he has to do is come back to the negotiations.”
Another exercise in legislative line-drawing will occur today when the Senate votes on whether to stop a Democratic filibuster of legislation to authorize a new missile defense system. Clinton last year vetoed legislation that included a similar proposal, but Dole is pushing it again to highlight his conflict with Clinton on the issue.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) pleaded with colleagues Monday to end the filibuster and allow a vote on the bill to show appreciation for Dole’s years of service to the Senate. “I can think of no more fitting tribute,” Kyl said.
But it takes 60 votes to stop a filibuster and Dole is not expected to prevail, particularly because the Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that his proposal would cost as much as $60 billion--far more than proponents had expected.
In another area, Dole has said he hoped before he left the Senate to break a logjam surrounding the health insurance legislation, which would allow workers to keep their coverage when they change or lose their jobs. But the bill has been stalled by major differences between House and Senate versions--including a controversial proposal, which Dole has embraced, to allow people to set up tax-favored savings accounts for medical expenses.
Another Dole initiative--his proposal to roll back the gasoline tax--has been stalled by Democrats’ refusal to allow a vote unless they are promised action on legislation to increase the minimum wage. Even if that impasse were to be resolved before Dole left the Senate, any political points scored from the gasoline tax rollback would be accompanied by a Democratic victory in winning the wage hike.
Whatever the outcome of Dole’s last week in Congress, his colleagues are planning to pay tribute to the generation-spanning reach of his legislative career. A video tribute to him is being prepared for the Republicans’ annual House-Senate dinner next Monday. And Senate colleagues predict that the toasting on the Senate floor won’t be limited to Republicans.
“I’m pretty confident the Democrats would display the same kind of affection,” said McCain. “Four months from an election, everything is political, but this will transcend that.”
Times staff writer Edwin Chen in Warren, Mich., contributed to this story.
* TAX CUTS
Clinton and Dole ready competing tax-cut plans. A14