Daschle steps up to top job in Senate

Lawmaker would fulfill his career dream as majority leader

Steely, modest demeanor

May 27, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - For Tom Daschle's first public appearance last week as the presumptive new Senate majority leader, he wore a face that looked not triumphant but rather uncharacteristically solemn - almost pained.

"I wanted to be seen as serious," the 53-year-old South Dakota Democrat explained later. "This is a somber time. I was a little disappointed that I was described the day before as giddy. This is serious. We have a great responsibility."

But earlier, when he had first learned that Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont was leaving the Republican Party, thereby throwing Senate control to the Democrats, Daschle was, in fact, past giddy, friends said.

More like euphoric - because becoming majority leader was Daschle's dream since he became a senator in 1987. It fulfills leadership ambitions that date to his days in the House of Representatives in the late 1970s.

With Daschle, though, appearances are frequently deceptive.

He is slightly built, soft-spoken and so boyish-looking that Senate elders failed to take him seriously until they took him on - in leadership fights or legislative battles - and lost. Daschle has built a reputation for being extremely bright, for bringing all his colleagues into discussions and for keeping his ego out of the way of the party's agenda. And he has shown that he can't be pushed around.

"I am here today to tell you that I was totally wrong about this young man," Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat and former majority leader himself, told his colleagues in 1996, two years after opposing Daschle's first bid for Democratic leader. "He has steel in his spine, despite his reasonable and modest demeanor."

Daschle won the job of Democratic leader in 1994 by one vote over Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut just as Republicans assumed control of both houses of Congress and set about to enact the conservative agenda for which they claimed they had a mandate. Daschle essentially stopped them in their tracks by holding enough of his 45 senators together to wage filibusters or sustain Clinton vetoes.

At the beginning of this year, Daschle was credited with negotiating an advantageous arrangement with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi for sharing power in the evenly divided Senate, which Republicans controlled because of the authority of Vice President Dick Cheney to break 50-50 ties in their favor.

Afterward, Republicans criticized the arrangement as yielding too much to the Democrats.

In recent weeks, Daschle, along with the Democratic whip, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, also played a critical behind-the-scenes role in persuading the disgruntled Jeffords to leave his party.

"Tom Daschle has been underestimated right from the beginning," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, observed last week. "I think those who have watched him in recent times felt that he has run circles around Trent Lott."

Republicans point out, however, that it's a lot easier to block action in the Senate, which a minority leader is often forced to do, than to get things done, which is expected of a majority leader. And a majority leader is further constrained if he has only a razor-thin majority, as Daschle does.

"The hardest job in an evenly divided Senate is majority leader," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican. "You have all the responsibility and not very much power. The easiest job is minority leader. Tom is an excellent leader, but he will have his work cut out for him."

Indeed, as a Democratic majority leader confronting not only a Republican president but also a Republican House, Daschle will likely continue to expend energy simply blunting Republican legislative initiatives.

Among the prime targets are likely to be Bush's energy and environmental proposals, defense spending and judicial nominations.

In fact, there may be alarm in the Bush White House, when veterans recall that Daschle's mentor George J. Mitchell, the former Democratic senator from Maine who served as majority leader, occupied a similar role when Bush's father was president.

Mitchell is thought to have contributed mightily to President George Bush's re-election defeat in 1992 by blocking much of his agenda, notably a capital-gains tax cut that had won approval from the Democratic-led House and that supporters say might have perked up the sagging economy.

But Daschle says he wants to avoid being perceived as an obstructionist.

"That would not be OK if all we are known for is what we have stopped," he said in an interview. "We're prepared to play the role of the brakes. But I also want to play a role that's constructive. I think we have a major opportunity to pass legislation that has some balance."

His first priorities, he says, are finishing the education bill, which already has considerable Democratic influence, resurrecting managed-care legislation long stalled by Republicans and creating a prescription drug benefit for Medicare.

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