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NEWS ANALYSIS : A Willful Senate Tarnishes Dole's Image as Leader


WASHINGTON — For an increasingly frustrated Bob Dole, it's beginning to look like the poet was right: April is indeed the cruelest month.

Four weeks ago, as he sailed through the final round of primaries that would clinch the Republican presidential nomination, Dole looked toward April in Washington as something close to a "win-win" situation. With GOP majorities in both House and Senate, and a de facto cease-fire in the making with the ultraconservative wing of his party, Dole saw a chance to show the nation's voters what a real Washington leader could do.

On the budget, on taxes, on other high-profile issues, an opportunity would present itself to demonstrate that he--not President Clinton--was the man who could end gridlock, get things done, respond to voters' near-universal exasperation with their government. Referring to his reputation as a master legislator, Dole said, "It's just something I do fairly well."

And if worse came to worst and his best efforts were thwarted, Dole could use gridlock as a weapon against Clinton in the fall, he believed.

So far, things aren't working out the way he'd hoped. Far from bestriding the Washington scene like a master or painting Clinton into corners, Dole last week looked a lot like the rabbit who wrestled the tar baby.

Instead of dramatic showdowns with Clinton on the budget, tax policy, health care and the like, Dole has found himself embroiled in a series of complicated skirmishes on less favorable issues. Recently, for example, he angrily pulled from the Senate floor the bill cracking down on illegal immigration; Republicans are counting on it as an important plus for them in the fall campaign, but the majority leader could not prevent Democrats from pushing forward politically awkward amendments dealing with Social Security and the minimum wage.

Moreover, the minimum-wage issue has turned into a briar patch all its own. Raising the wage is anathema to the business community and conservatives in general. But some congressional Republicans have broken ranks on the issue and joined its Democratic supporters. Moreover, polls show that the idea is highly popular with the public. Raising the minimum wage from the current $4.25 an hour to $5.15--Clinton's proposal--won 78%-17% support in a recent Los Angeles Times Poll.

As a result, Dole finds himself hard pressed to keep a Congress nominally controlled by his party from passing a Democratic measure that outrages some of the GOP's most important constituencies.

Adding to Dole's present travail is the high cost of his battle for the nomination, which has thrust him for the next several months up against a $37.2-million federal ceiling on pre-convention campaign expenditures. That has forced him to curtail spending at a time when Clinton--with about $20 million on hand--is under no such constraints. Dole and Clinton will not be even in financial terms again until late August, when both candidates receive federal funds to run their fall campaigns.

Dole may yet prevail on many of the issues now bedeviling him. But even though the election seems a long way away, Dole has a relatively small legislative window in which he hopes to demonstrate his abilities. The congressional calendar is squeezed by scheduled recesses and time out for the two national conventions in August.

Thus far the Democrats have succeeded in keeping Dole off balance, preventing him from projecting the can-do, take-charge image that would support his appeal to voters as the candidate of experience and reliability.

"If the minority wants to embarrass the majority leader, it can do so fairly easily," said Bill Frenzel, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota now at the Brookings Institution think tank.

Senate rules allow filibusters, make it hard for the majority to block unwanted amendments and in other ways magnify the power of a determined minority, he said, adding that Democrats, holding 47 of the 100 seats, "have votes to burn" when it comes to tripping up the Republicans.

Since Dole's nemesis at the moment is the faceless minority, he has had difficulty using the Senate to draw clear distinctions between himself and the president. Dole regularly takes to the floor to deliver what amounts to campaign speeches against Clinton, but given as they are in the context of legislative action, they have relatively little impact.

That may help explain why Dole is dead in the water in national opinion polls; sewing up the GOP nomination has given him no boost so far. According to the latest nationwide Times Poll, Dole trails Clinton 55% to 37%. A dozen other national polls taken since mid-March have shown Clinton with leads ranging from 11 to 17 percentage points.

All of which underscores the reality that, as Frenzel put it, leadership in the United States Senate "is not the greatest springboard for the presidency."

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