WASHINGTON - The Republican-led Congress is being rapidly retooled into a sophisticated election machine programmed with one overriding mission: putting Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole into the White House.
All issues, schedules, strategy and tactics are being selected and shaped to work to Mr. Dole's advantage, both to help a man many consider a close friend and to advance the cause of a successful presidential campaign, which Republicans say helps them, too.
"Everyone supports the goal of electing Bob Dole president," Sen. John McCain of Arizona, one of Mr. Dole's top advisers, said of fellow Republicans. "Our priority is to gear the process to portray him in the most positive way."
This means finishing work this week on the contentious spending bills that have led to two partial government shutdowns, dusting off and passing items from the House Republican "Contract with America" that became snarled in the Senate, and avoiding divisive debates except where they reflect more favorably on Mr. Dole than President Clinton.
The intent is to showcase Mr. Dole's leadership talents and underscore his claim to be "a doer, not a talker" while also drawing contrasts between Mr. Dole and Mr. Clinton on the issues.
Such an effort requires tight organization and strict discipline from lawmakers who are used to putting their own political concerns first.
For example, senators are being asked to drop long-standing objections to items in the House Republicans' contract.
Sens. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico and Ted Stevens of Alaska both had to back off on their opposition to the presidential "line-item veto." Sen. William V. Roth Jr. of Delaware swallowed his concerns about raising the earnings limit for Social Security recipients.
Meanwhile, House members, especially the freshmen who take pride in being unyielding rebels, are being taught to compromise.
" 'We're one team, one team' that's all we hear these days," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a freshman from Baltimore County. "It kind of happened overnight. There's obviously been some kind of meeting of the minds between our top leaders in the House and Dole."
Some Republican freshmen grumble that too many concessions are being made simply to get legislation passed, particularly on the broad spending bill that comes up later this week.
Two dozen or more freshmen warn that if they aren't satisfied with the measure as it emerges from a House-Senate conference, they will vote against it, Bob Dole notwithstanding.
"It's our job to kick the system as hard as we can in hopes of just moving it an inch," said Rep. Mark E. Souder, a freshman from Indiana. "When the freshmen aren't aggressive, the whole place moves to the left."
Dole comes first
But even among the most hard-line fiscal conservatives, there is now the sense that electing Mr. Dole must come first.
"Clearly, that's the only way that we can complete our revolution to get a Republican president who won't veto our bills," said Rep. Sam Brownback, a freshman from Mr. Dole's home state of Kansas.
nTC So far, there has been one glitch in the teamwork. House leaders, bowing to pressure from the gun lobby, scheduled a vote last week on repealing the ban on semiautomatic rifles without consulting with the Senate majority leader.
Repealing the gun ban is not one of the "wedge" issues on which Mr. Dole is seeking to contrast himself with Mr. Clinton. Polls show that about 70 percent of Americans support the ban on assault weapons.
The majority leader won't allow the House-passed repeal bill to come up for a vote in the Senate. But the public relations damage may already have been done.
Vice President Al Gore, flanked by police officers who support the gun ban, made a TV appearance after Friday's vote to drive home the message that most Americans will find Mr. Dole on the wrong side of the issue.
"When the Congress of the United States takes an action like this, it is a warning bell that extremist groups have gained control of this congressional majority," Mr. Gore charged.
Gingrich in background
A more typical example of the cooperation came earlier last week. House Speaker Newt Gingrich appeared at a news conference to credit Mr. Dole for a legislative deal that will pump $300 million into restoring the Florida Everglades.
Mr. Gingrich, who last year seemed to be calling all the shots in Congress and took most of the criticism for its missteps, has cheerfully taken a back seat to his more senior Senate counterpart.
The speaker acknowledges that protecting the environment is one issue on which House leaders made a serious miscalculation last year, when they tried to curb what they said were burdensome environmental regulations.
Besides trying to inoculate Mr. Dole on the environmental issue by sharing the Everglades deal, Mr. Gingrich and his colleagues hope to minimize further fallout.
"It doesn't serve us to get into a legislative fight with the president; all it does is allow him to define himself against us," said Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the fourth-ranking House Republican. "When he doesn't have us to fight with, his numbers go down."
At a news conference last week, Mr. Dole mocked the Clinton administration for acknowledging that the United States is defenseless against a rogue or accidental ballistic missile attack.
The Senate majority leader surprised House leaders a couple of weeks ago when he walked into a strategy session carrying a chart detailing the status of the dozens of unpassed items in the "Contract with America."
Voters ask about contract
The contract had always been a House project, born in the 1994 election season, which Mr. Dole embraced only tentatively after the elections. But out on the campaign trail this year, Mr. McCain said, voters are asking, "Whatever happened to the contract?"
So Mr. Dole and his congressional team are determined to send every possible contract item to the president's desk. They'll compromise where they must to get the items through the Senate, where Democrats can block most legislation with a filibuster.
One such case is the bill to limit damages in lawsuits involving faulty products, which Mr. McCain said "was totally watered down." But it passed the Senate and will soon be on its way to Mr. Clinton's desk for a likely veto.
Mr. Dole and his colleagues have not yet decided exactly how to approach major issues that remain unfinished: the balanced budget deal, welfare reform, tax cuts, Medicaid and Medicare.
Those issues are delicate because Republicans in tight races are being attacked by Democrats who charge that their opponents want to cut health programs for the poor and elderly in order to give tax breaks for the rich.
Republicans in those races, though, maintain that they are confident Mr. Dole can help. "It's our message of hope and opportunity vs. a campaign of fear," said Rep. John Ensign, a freshman Republican from Nevada whose re-election is rated as a tossup.
Pub Date: 3/24/96