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Two top contenders for the 1996 Republican nomination for president are on a collision course over how to reform Congress.

Former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander says "cut their pay and send them home." Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole, R-Kan., thinks senators should be sent back to work and that what should be cut is the dinner hour.The question dividing Dole and Alexander - should Congress be replaced with a part-time "citizens' legislature" - may also split the ranks of the GOP as the 1996 primary season approaches. "I think `cut their pay and send them home' . . . should be the battle cry of the Republican Party," Alexander told us. "I discovered that when I began to mention this. First I got a smile, then applause, and then people actually rising out of their chairs."

That may be why Dole derided his proposal as a "crowd-pleaser" and quipped that Alexander could offer a real "bell-ringer" by proposing to abolish Congress altogether.

"Of course it's a crowd-pleaser," says Alexander. "It's a catchy phrase for a serious idea." The idea is to keep Congress in session six months a year, and then send it home to "take a real job" and make room for "farmers, teachers, and merchants" to run for office. Alexander added: "I think it's good for Republicans to speak in plain English."

Dole, who normally is no defender of Congress, reserved his use of "plain English" for a blistering critique of Capitol Hill culture. During a recent interview, he lamented the lack of discipline among senators of both parties, the number of distractions, and the power of one member with a dinner appointment to derail the institution.

Dole also pointed out a paradox in Alexander's plan: Congress already is a part-time legislature. Last year the Senate was in session 156 days. In 1992, there were only 129 working days. This year, the Senate has worked 117 days, with approximately 15 more to follow.

"When he (Alexander) said `cut their pay and send them home,' I said `we're not here much anyway,"' Dole told us. "I think the thing people like is cutting their pay, (but) counting recesses and weekends and all that, we're not in a half a year now. Maybe he doesn't want us to show up at all."

The lot of a leader is not a happy one in the Senate. While debates over health care and crime rage on the Senate floor, the fiercest bickering can break out over schedules and lifestyles. "People don't want to vote early on Mondays," Dole complains. "They want to leave early on Friday. When I go into the cloakroom and talk to some of these members with children, boy, they are all over me. They never get to see their kids. They never get to go home."

Dole believes one of the problems is that some senators spend too much time on dinner, and not enough on debate. "We've got to be prepared to do business," Dole says, so senators would not be left "sitting around at 7 at night waiting for somebody to come back from dinner to offer amendments. We have to vote at 10 because (some senator) had to go for two hours out to dinner. It's crazy."

The biggest "thief of time" in Congress, argues Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., is the incessant fund-raising required of members to stay in office. The average senator today must raise $2,000 per day, six days a week, over an entire six-year term to raise enough money to get re-elected. Byrd recalls that during his days as Senate majority leader, fund-raising demands placed a constant strain on the Senate schedule. "I saw it every day," Byrd says. "Senators asked me not to have votes on a certain day, not to vote on certain evenings."

Dole counters that Byrd has never felt the pressure of being in a tough re-election race. "I think if you're in West Virginia and you're Robert Byrd, I imagine people come knocking on your door, you don't have to leave town," Dole said. "We're not all in that powerful position. Many of our colleagues come from tough, competitive, two-party states - West Virginia not being one of them."

Winning those tough, competitive races takes lots of money under the current system. Yet Alexander remains an absentee in the debate over campaign finance reform, a prerequisite for turning the political process over to "farmers, merchants and teachers," as Alexander envisions. "I haven't made any speeches about (campaign finance reform)," Alexander says.

Perhaps because he thinks it wouldn't be a crowd-pleaser.

Congress already is a part-time legislature. Last year the Senate was in session 156 days. In 1992, there were only 129 working days. This year, the Senate has worked 117 days, with approximately 15 more to follow.