In The Senate, Some Leading Questions

April 02, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The contest for one of the most powerful offices in the country got under way last month. But don't expect to see much sign of it.

The race will haunt congressional deliberations until it finally concludes by the end of the year, and the outcome could have a major effect on the success of the Clinton presidency. But don't expect to have any voice in it.

Senate Democrats are picking a new leader. Their highly personal selection process combines the intimacy of a race for class president with the exclusivity of cardinals choosing a pope.

"And because these are secret- ballot contests, the outcome is almost impossible to predict," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional analyst for the American Enterprise Institute. "Even people who believe they have enough votes sometimes lose because their colleagues lie and because some candidates just hear what they want to hear."

For the first time in history, this overwhelmingly white, male group will also have a new factor to consider in the race: the women's vote.

The five Democratic female senators, led by Maryland's Barbara A. Mikulski, are functioning as a bloc, insisting that each candidate appear before them to make a case. The candidates will be quizzed on plans for getting more women elected to the Senate and promoting female senators to positions of greater power. They will be asked where they stand on issues of concern to women, such as abortion.

The women won't necessarily vote as a bloc, Ms. Mikulski says. But when the total electorate is only 56 votes -- maybe fewer after the November elections, when many Democratic seats are at risk -- support from female members could make a difference.

"The Senate's finally catching up with the rest of the country," said Ann Lewis, a Democratic political consultant. "They have to consider the women."

Ms. Mikulski may even parlay her position as dean of Democratic women to run for the No. 2 post of majority whip or seek appointment from the new leader to run the Democratic Policy Committee. The first job would get her into the nuts and bolts of running the Senate; the second would put her in charge of crafting the leadership's policy message.

"A lot of my colleagues have been urging me to seek one of those jobs, and I would like to stay in the leadership," said Ms. Mikulski, who holds the junior position of assistant floor leader.

The leadership jockeying began March 4, the day that the Senate majority leader, George J. Mitchell, 60, a Maine Democrat, announced he would retire at the end of his term in January. After a dozen years in the Senate -- half as majority leader -- Mr. Mitchell is taking the chance while still relatively young, healthy and in good spirits to go out and have a life.

Mr. Mitchell was the nation's most influential Democrat in the four years that George Bush was president, and the bane of the Republican administration. He scored an early victory by blocking Mr. Bush's proposed tax cut on capital gains, the key element of the Bush economic program. During the last

two years of the Bush presidency, the administration all but gave up pushing for anything Mr. Mitchell didn't support.

For the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton, Mr. Mitchell has been a powerful asset. He was crucial in the arm-twisting that resulted in Senate passage of Mr. Clinton's economic plan last year by one vote. That effort so exhausted Mr. Mitchell that it probably fueled his desire for early retirement.

In replacing Mr. Mitchell, his colleagues will be seeking someone who can advance their own particular interests. The new leader should speak well for the Democratic senators on television and behind the scenes, cater to the needs of every caucus member in striking deals and, preferably, leave an open position that creates a domino effect of career advancement behind him.

Most aggressive in his bid to succeed Mr. Mitchell has been Thomas A. Daschle, 46, a Mitchell protegee from South Dakota who immediately started sounding out his Democratic ZTC colleagues about his prospects. On March 23, Mr. Daschle became the first -- and so far only -- candidate to enter officially the leadership race.

A liberal and Clinton loyalist who has shared with Mr. Mitchell the job of chairing the Democratic Policy Committee, Mr. Daschle says he has the support of 14 fellow Democrats, about half the number he would need to win.

Of course, another tricky feature of this contest is that it won't be clear until after the November elections how big the Democratic cau

cus is or exactly who is in it. Thirty-four Senate seats come up for election this year, 22 of them now held by Democrats. If the Democrats slip below 50 members, Mr. Mitchell's successor would become minority leader.

But Mr. Daschle decided to declare himself early because that's what Mr. Mitchell did in 1988, when he got an early start in a field of more-senior contenders and bested his nearest competitor by a 2-to-1 margin.

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