A Senate Leader Comes Into His Own

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Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota, was, as usual, refreshingly candid when he met with reporters at a Monitor breakfast recently.

As was widely reported, Mr. Daschle told us that he would steer a course on welfare, Medicare, Social Security, campaign-finance reform, late-term abortions, and a balanced budget that certainly appeared to have a distinctly "Daschle" stamp on it.

I pressed the senator on welfare reform. He had indicated that he wasn't inclined at this time to back the "fix it" legislation that President Clinton had promised voters would be an immediate priority. Instead, he said he wanted to wait and watch how the states performed in implementing the new law.

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But, I asked, what if - as its critics contend - the new welfare program turns out to be harmful to a lot of poor children? Shouldn't there be quicker legislative action? Daschle stuck to his position, saying he expected that the states would see to it that no one got hurt.

Frankly, it didn't occur to me that Daschle was "signaling" his independence from Mr. Clinton - an interpretation that was headlined in this way in The Washington Post the following morning. But that was the "story line" that prevailed in other publications, so much so that Daschle called a press conference in which he said he had no intention of distancing himself from the president. He said he was perfectly willing to work with Clinton on every front, "given the institutional differences that exist" between the White House and Congress.

Backtracking? No

Did Daschle tell us more than he intended at that breakfast? I don't think so. Indeed, I'm not aware that he actually has backtracked on the positions he disclosed to us. I think Daschle knew his words would catch the attention of the president. As some other reporters have suggested, I think he was simply letting Mr. Clinton know that he couldn't take the Democratic Senate minority leader for granted - that he, Daschle, and his Democratic colleagues remained a force that should always be taken into account.

But I don't think Daschle had expected headlines indicating that he was actually departing from the president and going his separate way. That's why he called the press conference. He then didn't backtrack so much as emphasize that he was still friendly to and supportive of the president. I hear that Clinton reacted angrily when he saw the headlines stating that Daschle "Veers Away From White House." This presidential ire, it seems, was brought to Daschle's attention. And then came the meeting with reporters where the senator spoke of cooperating with the president.

So it was that Daschle did, in fact, make a point that he had intended to make at our breakfast. But he did not, as some have suggested, commit a gaffe that has damaged him politically or personally. This was not Ed Rollins uttering words that stirred up so much controversy or Newt Gingrich complaining about having to ride in the back of the president's plane. Those were "happenings" at our breakfasts that were, indeed, very damaging to those two guests.

A signal to the president, and to Congress

No, I see in this incident a calculated "coming out" of a government leader who, partly because of his pleasant, nonconfrontational style, has remained in the background since he took over the reins from Sen. George Mitchell. Senator Mitchell was a fiery, highly visible combatant who knew how to hold center stage. For Daschle, it's been a hard act to follow. But now he's beginning to come into his own.

Daschle was also sending out a signal at that breakfast to Senate majority leader Trent Lott, who has been talking of late as though he thought that he, together with the president, would be the principal architects of upcoming legislation. "You will have also to deal with me - and my position on issues," Daschle, in effect, was telling Mr. Lott.

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