Too soon to count votes to replace Sen. Mitchell



WASHINGTON -- In January 1971 Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia defeated Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts for majority whip of the Senate, 31 to 24. In the press and political community it ranked as a major upset. Kennedy had held the job for several years; Byrd was a nationally obscure figure.

So the next morning, Kennedy was asked what happened. He didn't know, he replied, shaking his head. He had solid commitments from more than 30 of his colleagues but the secret ballot produced only 24 votes. "Somebody lied," Kennedy said with a wry grin.

That bit of history is worth remembering when anyone begins handicapping the contest for Senate majority leader that has now begun in the wake of the announcement by Sen. George Mitchell of Maine that he is retiring at the end of the year. Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the first candidate out of the box, is claiming he is "about halfway there" in putting together a majority.

But the decision will be made in a secret ballot next January and, as Kennedy discovered, senators have been known to lie to one another. Indeed, leadership contests in both parties in both houses of Congress often produce situations where several candidates have private assurances from the same members and never can figure out what hit them. It's a great system; everybody gets to claim he supported the winner.

This is not to say, however, that Daschle, 46, should not be considered a serious contender. He is a liberal in the Mitchell mold and has been something of a protege of the retiring leader, serving with him as co-chairmen of the Democratic Policy Committee. He has a reputation as a smart and diligent insider player with sound political instincts.

At the moment, the early line has two other potentially leading candidates. One is Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, a somewhat more conservative "new Democrat" and chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council with a similarly strong reputation within the Senate. Another is Sen. Wendell Ford of Kentucky, now second in the leadership as majority whip. If Ford, who is 69, were to indicate he plans to retire when his current term ends in four years, he might be a convenient way station for Democrats not ready to choose among younger candidates.

Others being mentioned include Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, Harry Reid of Nevada, Jim Sasser of Tennessee and David Pryor of Arkansas, a close political ally of President Clinton.

The main problem in trying to handicap the race is that no one knows what factors will be important to which senators. Moreover, since the choice won't be made until after the midterm election in November, the universe of voters obviously will be somewhat different from what it is today -- and perhaps smaller than the current 56.

It is probably a mistake to see the contest in ideological terms. As a group, Senate Democrats may be marginally more liberal than Breaux, but they are likely to be far more interested in his ideas about how he would operate the Senate and look after their needs than in ideology. The important questions are the ones about getting Fridays off.

Similarly, it would be a mistake to put too much weight on Pryor's connections to Clinton. On a question like this, the White House is not likely to have any influence and indeed probably would be making a mistake by trying to interfere in behalf of any candidate. Senators are very stuffy about their institutional prerogatives and they know most of them are still going to be in the Senate long after Bill Clinton is gone.

Nor does the question of who would make the best television spokesman for the party necessarily carry much weight. Nobody ever accused Bob Byrd of being catnip for the cameras, but four years after he became whip he won the leadership in a campaign that rested heavily on his willingness to meet the needs of individual senators.

Leadership contests are always engrossing inside the Beltway because they deal with who is going to achieve power, which is what politics is all about. But it would be a mistake to pay very much attention to the early maneuvering and claims of the candidates.

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