WASHINGTON — Two prominent Republican senators paid visits to the House of Representatives earlier this week. Bob Dole, the retiring majority leader, came to say goodbye. His successor, Trent Lott, popped in to talk about the budget.
For Mr. Dole, who left Congress to campaign for the presidency full-time, his trip to the Capitol's South Wing was unusual - he doesn't frequent the House. Mr. Lott's visit, however, was one of several weekly "howdy-dos."
As Lott takes over Dole's job, the party's agenda will not likely change much. Between hammering out the budget and debating reforms in health insurance, welfare, Medicare, immigration, the minimum wage, and campaign finance, the new majority leader won't find much wiggle room on the legislative calendar.
But Lott's affinity with the House and his friendship with Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia should increase bicameral cooperation. This makes it easier for Republicans to craft veto-proof legislation, or, if they want to, bottleneck Congress completely.
At this point, Republicans seem more likely to adopt the former strategy. With Dole out stumping, Lott eager to prove himself, and Democrats already labeling the GOP Congress "do-nothings," House and Senate leaders have fewer immediate reasons to produce legislation that will be summarily vetoed.
Lott's visit to the House Tuesday was, in fact, designed to quell a miniature revolt by freshman Republicans over the party's compromise 1997 budget resolution. The irrepressible freshmen objected to the bill's six-year plan, which added $4 billion to the House's original proposal and would allow the deficit to increase temporarily in 1997.
"We weren't elected to increase the budget deficit," says freshman Indiana Rep. Mark Souder (R).
During last winter's budget strife, such rhetoric was common as freshmen growled about House-Senate compromises that, in their opinion, sacrificed too much. In those instances, the ideological and stylistic rift between Dole and Mr. Gingrich became evident. During press conferences, Dole would hover behind Gingrich, who did most of the talking.
During one government shutdown Dole disapproved of, he said he found it ironic that the National Zoo was closed, but Congress was still open. Some of Dole's moderate colleagues went even further, describing the freshman class, and others who took hard lines on budget talks with the White House, as "bug-eyed zealots."
Those days are over. Lott has strong House ties, having served as minority whip until 1988. Gingrich, who inherited the whip's job after Lott's election to the Senate, has referred to the new majority leader as "my mentor." The two men are close friends.
But this alliance does not necessarily mean Congress will become more productive. While Dole's departure changed the Senate leadership, it did not narrow ideological gaps within the Republican caucus. Deep divisions remain on issues like whether to raise the minimum wage, maintain federal minimum standards for welfare, and allow employers to offer tax-free medical savings accounts (MSAs) instead of traditional health insurance.
At this writing, MSAs continued to hamstring a popular health-insurance reform bill, despite its unanimous passage in the Senate and the fact that Dole, the presumed GOP presidential nominee, is no longer around to take credit for it.
This situation led Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia to offer a prevalent view in Congress. "Let's face it," he says. "Any health-care reform this year looks good for the president. I'm not sure the Republicans want to pass anything."