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Voices -- Tom Daschle, 2001

November 19, 2008 | 10:29 am

Photograph, Getty Images

President-elect Barack Obama has asked former Sen. Tom Daschle
to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services, and the
South Dakota Democrat has accepted the offer.

Daschle Finds Himself in Another Tight Spot

Profile: No stranger to slim victories, his new role will tax his skills as a coalition builder. Even rivals had kind words.

Friday May 25, 2001


WASHINGTON -- Sen. Tom Daschle, soon to become the nation's highest-ranking Democrat as leader of a razor-thin Senate majority, should be expert by now at squeezing the most power from the barest of margins.

The South Dakotan won his first race for Congress in 1978 in a manner that President Bush might appreciate--by a mere 110 votes after a hand recount and a yearlong legal dispute that reached the state Supreme Court.

He won a contest for Senate minority leader in 1994 on a 24-23 vote of his Democratic peers--and one of his backers bolted soon afterward to the Republicans.

Now Daschle will become Senate majority leader when Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont quits the Republican column in coming days to become an independent, giving Democrats a breathtakingly precarious edge: 50-49-1.

A New Role for Capitol Insider

Having pulled off a stunning coup with the Jeffords defection, Daschle will move into a new role that will tax his considerable skills as a Capitol insider: building legislative coalitions with Republicans loyal to Bush.

The man he edged out in 1994 for the party leadership said Daschle can do it.

"This will be a seamless move for him," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.). "He's respected and thought of very kindly by Republicans."

Dodd predicted Daschle would be in the mold of former Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), a well-regarded majority leader during the 1980s. For Baker, Dodd said, "the party came second and the Senate came first."

Most Republicans, naturally, were not rushing to praise Daschle on an extraordinary day when their majority had been pulled out from under them. But some had kind words for him.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a maverick, said he has "a close personal relationship" with Daschle and praised his "fairness." Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) called him "able." And Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) said: "I think Tom has real potential in being a good majority leader. . . . Essentially, he's a fair-minded man."

Daschle's ascension also is sure to intensify speculation about his prospects as a presidential candidate. He has not scotched such talk, while insisting his focus is on building his base in the Senate.

Daschle, 53, a native of Aberdeen, S.D., is a liberal populist who is married to a Washington lobbyist. He served four terms in the House after his close 1978 election, then won his Senate seat in 1986.

He became a protege of former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine). When Mitchell announced his retirement in 1994, Daschle vaulted from being a relatively little-known Senate insider to becoming the chamber's top link to the Clinton administration.

This January, Daschle served for 17 days as majority leader when the new 50-50 Senate convened before George W. Bush became president and his vice president, Dick Cheney, became the tie-breaking vote. Now Daschle will have the majority post for more than a brief turn--assuming that none of the 50 Democratic-held seats change hands soon.

Position Powerful, but Misunderstood

The position Daschle is about to attain is powerful but often misunderstood.

Unlike the speaker of the House, who has vast authority to dictate what legislation may reach the floor and when, the Senate majority leader is forced by the chamber's rules and customs to consult frequently with the opposing party.

What's more, major legislation in the Senate usually requires a 60-vote super-majority to cut off debate--meaning neither the Democrats nor the Republicans in this Congress can roll past the other party without gaining a significant amount of crossover support.

But the majority leader does have one privilege that elevates him above the other 99 senators: The right to speak first in a given session.

That right enabled Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the current majority leader, to control the timing of debate on Bush's tax cut and other priority legislation for the new administration. Now Daschle will be able to steer debate toward Democratic goals.

Daschle, in a telephone interview Thursday, said he hoped to encourage Senate proceedings that would give Democrats and Republicans the chance to offer the full range of amendments they want--something akin to the freewheeling debate on campaign finance reform that drew national attention two months ago.

He also said the close margins of victory in his career's key contests have honed his political skills.

"I really believe it's made me a better politician and made me a better leader," Daschle said. "What it has done is force me to listen and be sensitive to people who may not hold my view initially--and to be inclusive and to recognize that I've got to build my base, build out from whatever core base I have. That has been therapeutic for me."

Building his base by one seat in the 50-50 Senate--the Jeffords defection from the GOP--was an amazing stroke. A Senate source familiar with the move credited Daschle for being one of the senior Democrats who wooed Jeffords but also for giving the wavering Republican enough breathing room to make his own decision.

Daschle "simply reached out without asking the question," the source said. "He never pushed it, never said, 'Are you going to do this?' or 'Is it imminent?' or 'Can you do it now?' They [Daschle and his allies] were patient."

And Jeffords came around.

Daschle also has made sure to pay attention to the spectrum of views on the Democratic side. Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) has voted more often than not against Daschle and was an early supporter of the Bush tax plan. But Miller remains in the party's fold despite the urgent efforts of Republicans to convert him. So does Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), another frequent crossover vote.

And Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), a key centrist who has worked with Bush and Republicans, is a Daschle-appointed member of the party's leadership and attends weekly strategy meetings.

To be sure, Daschle as minority leader often struck a hard-edged tone toward the Bush administration. His rhetoric against the bill to cut taxes by $1.35 trillion over 11 years, which Congress seems about to approve, has been fierce. He denounced Bush's pick of John Ashcroft as attorney general. He has criticized Bush's environmental policies and this month called a Pentagon proposal to develop a military strategy for outer space "the single dumbest thing I've heard so far from this administration."

Dealings With Bush Have Been Strained

In his interview, Daschle acknowledged dealings with the new president this year have been strained. But he said: "I'm thinking that there may be more opportunity for us to have a better relationship."