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The Nation

Low-Key Daschle Leading Party Into a Pivotal Year

January 21, 2002|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Call him the unlikely gladiator.

Tom Daschle is by acclamation one of the most likable, low-key members of the U.S. Senate. He is chronically self-deprecating in a place riddled with pomposity. Even in the middle of raucous debate, he speaks in tones so soothing he could be reading a bedtime story. And even after years as the Senate's Democratic leader, he was so little-known just a year ago that he could do his own grocery shopping in Washington without attracting much attention.

No more. Daschle has emerged as the de facto leader of the Democratic Party, catapulted into the political spotlight by circumstances that have put him toe-to-toe with President Bush.

His rise to prominence has been fueled by the animosity of his adversaries. Republicans have mounted a full-dress campaign--scathing political ads in South Dakota, television appearances by Daschle critics, a new Web site created by conservative activists--to brand him an obstructionist. Their message: Beneath his beguiling, soft-spoken veneer lurks a hardened partisan.

This much is certain--as Senate majority leader, Daschle has more power than any other Democrat to counter Bush's domestic agenda. And to the delight of many Democrats and the frustration of the GOP, he has used it. Daschle has almost single-handedly blocked or slowed Bush's proposals on energy policy, tax cuts and other issues.

"I can't think of any higher form of flattery than the fact that the Republicans have decided to put him in their cross hairs," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.).

Now, major challenges loom for Daschle as Congress reconvenes this week. How he flexes his muscles in the coming year will be a key factor in whether Bush can turn his wartime popularity into legislative success on the domestic front. That, in turn, could determine which party controls the Senate after the 2002 elections--and whether Daschle can present himself as a credible challenger to Bush in the 2004 presidential election.

In the meantime, Daschle personifies the conundrum his party faces in its relationship with Bush. He has struggled to balance his support for the president's war on terrorism against growing efforts to fight Bush on issues such as taxes and health policy that cut to the core of the differences between the parties they head.

"It's ticklish," said Peter Fenn, a Democratic political consultant. "Everyone realizes that criticizing the president . . . is very delicate."

Also ticklish is the task of leading a divided party as Democrats continue to grope for bearings in the post-Clinton era. That challenge became clear following Daschle's much-publicized speech this month in which he blamed much of the country's fiscal woes on the Bush-backed tax cut--yet stopped short of calling for a repeal or rollback of the law.

Some of the 12 moderate Senate Democrats who voted for the tax cut bridled at Daschle's intensified criticism of it. But some party liberals thought he did not go far enough, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) upped the ante in the tax cut debate by proposing changes to the law.

"We are clearly in a transitional period," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrats Network. "It still remains to be seen who's going to define the next Democratic Party."

Daschle's relationship with Bush took on new significance and visibility in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. As part of his effort to build a bipartisan war coalition, Bush began weekly breakfast meetings with Daschle and the other congressional leaders. In his speech to Congress shortly after the attacks, Bush greeted Daschle with a bear hug on the floor of the House--a nationally televised moment that became an emblem of the post-Sept. 11 rapprochement between the parties.

Relations Strained With Administration

But that embrace may have obscured a relationship rife with tension and rivalry. Last spring, Bush irked Daschle by launching a campaign-style tour for his tax cut in South Dakota. Adding to the irritation, the White House recruited GOP Rep. John Thune to run this year against South Dakota's other Democratic senator, Tim Johnson, a Daschle protege.

For his part, Daschle annoyed the administration in July when he bluntly criticized Bush's foreign policy just as the president was launching a trip abroad.

And last fall, Daschle moved decisively to block Bush's proposal to open a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling. When the drilling plan appeared to have the votes needed to pass the Senate Energy Committee, Daschle snatched the bill away from the panel and said he would bring a leadership-backed bill to the Senate floor--but not for months.

Bush's political aides have always viewed Daschle with suspicion. They see him in the mold of his mentor, former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), who made legislative life miserable for the administration of Bush's father.

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