After 35 years in Congress, Bob Dole plans to leave the Senate next week with little fanfare, just, he says, "a little statement on the floor."
And the Republican presidential candidate is eager for a face-to-face meeting with Colin Powell - but equally eager to find a way to do it out of the media spotlight.Speaking to reporters aboard his campaign plane Thursday, Dole nostalgically recalled being elected to the House in 1960. "When I came to Congress I was really out in right field," he said. Asked if he was like the conservative firebrands in the current GOP House freshman class, Dole smiled and said, "I was a House Republican."
Dole spoke as he flew from California to Chicago, where he met with former Polish President Lech Walesa and then was attending an event to focus on efforts to combat domestic violence. "Oh, no," Dole said with a big grin when asked whether the Walesa meeting could be part of an effort to court Polish-American voters.
At a brief meeting with reporters, Dole said he told Walesa that he would introduce legislation next week that would help speed the entry of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into NATO.
Walesa said that adding the central European nations to NATO would be "a beautiful victory and a final point of victory for my struggle."
Looking back on his congressional career, Dole said there were a number of votes he wished he could take back but declined to list them. Asked to cite the vote he was most proud of, Dole mentioned his 1983 effort to restructure the Social Security system - and credited New York Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan with helping shepherd the controversial package to passage.
Looking ahead to his final week in the Senate, Dole said he would schedule another vote on the balanced budget amendment, even though he knows it will fail.
Dole said he also hoped to push a health-care reform bill to final passage before leaving the Senate but said significant differences remained between the House and Senate. "I think so," he said when asked whether he wanted the health bill to be his final legislative legacy instead of his effort to temporarily repeal Clinton's 1993 gas tax increase. He said Thursday or Friday was likely to be his final day in the Senate - and his final day as Senate majority leader.
Dole said he was encouraged by voter reaction since he announced he was leaving the Senate to campaign full time.
Still, he said voters don't know much about him except that he is "a senator in Washington." But when asked what he considered the most important quality he would like to voters to know about him, Dole said, "Beats me."
Looking ahead, Dole said he was meeting with Mother Teresa on Saturday before speaking to state Republican chairmen. He is scheduled to campaign Sunday in New Jersey, Monday in Michigan and Tuesday in Virginia. Dole said he still hoped to take an overseas trip in early July but did not say where he would like to visit.
Dole spoke to Powell by telephone after he clinched the Republican nomination and said in an interview a few days later that he wanted to talk to the retired general about taking an active role in the fall campaign, regardless of whether he ended up as the GOP vice presidential nominee.