KWAME HOLMAN: Bob Dole returns to Washington on Tuesday with his nomination as the Republican candidate for President almost a mathematical certainty. Judging by his response to questions, the Senate Majority Leader is ready to fight much of the upcoming election campaign right there on Capitol Hill.
REPORTER: President Clinton was very critical of the cuts in environmental programs that Republicans are proposing in the budget bill that you're dealing with here now. Are Republicans vulnerable on environmental issues in this election?
SEN. ROBERT DOLE, Majority Leader: Well, obviously, we're concerned about the environment but we're not, we're not out trying to devastate the environment, but this is 1996, and President Clinton is getting an early start on, on November. He's going to need it, but he's getting an early start.
SPOKESMAN: (Monday) The cleanup at the site is now stopped. We have run out of money.
KWAME HOLMAN: President Clinton has spent Monday in Wallington, New Jersey, inspecting a toxic waste site. Cleanup of the site had begun under the EPA's Superfund program but hasn't been completed. The President linked the delay in the cleanup to the policies of the Republican-led Congress.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: This budget impasse has been used by Congress and this crazy way of running the government by continuing resolution, instead of a budget, to slowly and quietly keep the EPA from doing its job. The EPA is now operating at about a 15 percent cut from its last year's budget. All that remains to be done is to finish the job of purging the soil of that site, of the poison chemicals. I can't think of why we ought to tolerate this in Wallington or anywhere else in the country. (applause)
KWAME HOLMAN: The President's visit to New Jersey wasn't officially a campaign stop, but it had all the appearances of one, according to Missouri Senator Kit Bond.
SEN. KIT BOND, (R) Missouri: Oh, that was a bell ringer. The political pundits and spin-meisters must have been, must have been rubbing their hands together in glee.
KWAME HOLMAN: Bond, chairman of the committee that handles EPA's funding, said it was the EPA's decision to stop the cleanup in New Jersey.
SEN. KIT BOND: We told EPA, go out and spend your money where there's a human health risk. You got more than enough money to do that. So either one of two things, Mr. President: Either EPA decided that that Wallington, New Jersey site was not posing a risk to human health, which would have been a vitally important factor that reporters could ask the President about at his news conference, or if there was a real risk to human health and EPA had staged the slowdown to give the President a political forum.
KWAME HOLMAN: With the two major Presidential candidates leading from opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, it's inevitable that the early focus of the campaign will be on Washington, but Mississippi's Trent Lott, the Senate Majority Whip, says he doesn't think things are at that point yet.
SEN. TRENT LOTT, Majority Whip: I think it's a little early yet. I don't think that we're in the total Presidential campaign mode yet.
KWAME HOLMAN: It was Lott who ran things in the Senate while Dole fought off challengers for the Republican Presidential nomination, but now, Dole can be back at his job almost full-time, and Lott says Dole can score political points there too.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: You know, I still believe, and I believe that Majority Leader Bob Dole believes that the best politics is to get things done for America. When you do the job, you do what's right for the country, there's plenty, you know, political benefit to go around for everybody.
KWAME HOLMAN: And it appears Sen. Dole is getting things done. Reportedly, he's just rounded up enough Republican votes to pass the line item veto. That measure gives the President the power to veto individual parts of legislation, while accepting the rest. The line item veto is a major unfinished element in the House Republicans' Contract With America. It had been bottled up in negotiations for more than a year until Dole intervened. The Senate this week also made progress toward approving a catch-all spending bill to fund the federal government's operations through September, the end of the fiscal year. The measure ended a longstanding impasse and came only after a majority of Republicans, including Dole, finally agreed to the President's and Senate Democrats' demands for more money for education.
SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE, (D) Minnesota: I mean, absolutely we need to pay the interest off on the debt, but you don't save the children of the next generation by savaging the children of this generation.
KWAME HOLMAN: And despite their charges the President was attempting to create a phony campaign issue out of the environment, Republicans apparently have agreed to add more money there too. But increasing spending doesn't sit well with all Republicans, particularly those in the House.
REP. BOB LIVINGSTON, Chairman, Appropriations Committee: And if you don't fund these things, President Clinton says, we're going to close the government down and it'll be the Republicans' fault and they're extremists! Give me a break!
KWAME HOLMAN: But Trent Lott doesn't believe compromising with the President on spending will cost Dole Republican support.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: No, I don't think it will come to that at all. I think it is important we stay in touch with each other across the capitol and across the aisle. I think we need to listen to concerns of members that feel like, you know, it has already gone too far. Frankly, my own personal disposition leans much closer to what the House Republicans think about this omnibus spending bill. I think it spends way too much, but it also involves leadership. Now, leadership can stand around and throw stones, and nothing happens, or you can get out there and lead, and Bob Dole has been willing to step up to that task.
SEN. ROBERT DOLE: Thank you very much.