Senate's new man in the middle

The next majority leader is the Democrats' soft-spoken master of intense partisanship.

Forget "Patton" or "Braveheart," the standard movie favorites of powerful people in Washington. Ask the new Senate leader what his favorite movie is, and he'll talk about a soft-spoken guy who drives a lawnmower 260 miles to make up with an estranged brother.

He especially likes the part when the hero of "The Straight Story" reminds a runaway girl that a single stick will break. But "tie them sticks in a bundle and try to break that," goes the script. "That bundle, that's family."

It's easy to see why that homespun message of stick-togetherness might resonate with Democrat Tom Daschle. When the South Dakotan assumes leadership of the United States Senate, perhaps as early as today, his tenure as majority leader will hinge largely on his ability to closely bind Democrats - and maybe even a few independent-minded Republicans.

If he fails, legislative stalemate (or chaos) is a real possibility in a chamber divided 50-49 (plus one freshly minted independent). Overshadowing Mr. Daschle is the reality that the numerical balance could shift at almost any time - precipitated by, say, an indictment of a senator from New Jersey or the retirement of a very senior statesman.

A conspicuously modest man, Daschle is easy to underestimate. He comes from a small, largely Republican state that had never before produced a Senate leader. He still drives around South Dakota back roads alone - no handlers, no entourage. He pops into hardware stores, Elks Lodge halls, cafes, or auctions to listen to constituents.

In a chamber of out-size personalities, Daschle is known as a listener and for his quiet, disciplined tenacity. He won his first election to the House on a whisker, a vote that was contested in the courts for a year. When he ran to replace retiring Sen. George Mitchell, his mentor, as party leader in 1994, the old guard in the Senate didn't think he was up for the job.

They've since changed their minds.

"I am here today to tell you that I was totally wrong about this young man," said Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, as he nominated Daschle for reelection as party leader in 1996. "He has steel in his spine."

Those who work closely with Daschle say discipline is his trademark. A four-mile daily run, come rain or snow. A daily browse through several newspapers - before he even gets to the office. An early fan of PalmPilots and e-mail, for keeping things straight and staying in touch.

Critics fault Daschle for being intensely partisan, a characteristic masked somewhat by his unassuming yet articulate persona.

Indeed, building party cohesion has been a central tenet of his six years as minority-party leader. Daschle has retooled the Democratic caucus, which seldom met under predecessors like Lyndon Johnson, into a forum for forging party consensus. While the GOP caucus shunned its dissidents, Daschle made a point of keeping doors open to Democrats who broke with the party line, like Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia. When senators won't vote his way, Daschle at least has managed to get them to hold off talking openly about their disagreements, so as not to compromise his negotiating position with Republicans.

"It's a tough caucus," says Robert Strauss, a longtime Democratic adviser and lobbyist. "Our fault lines are not as sharp and harsh as the Republicans', but they are terribly difficult. He has the ability to bring people together, and he knows the issues."

Daschle has also aggressively courted those Republicans on the edge of the comfort zone with their own party. He and Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada took the lead in coaxing Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont to leave the Republican camp. Last weekend, Daschle met with maverick GOP Sen. John McCain at the McCain ranch in Arizona - a meeting that sent tremors through Republican circles.

He's also tried to make the most of the power he does yield. As minority leader, he used Senate procedures to delay votes - or to force roll calls on issues Republicans would find awkward in the next election, such as healthcare and gun control.

"Like George Mitchell, he is able to come across as being reasonable and bipartisan, and down deep he's hard as nails," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

"He's not a fellow you try to push around," agrees Mr. Strauss.

When Daschle becomes majority leader, he will control the timing of legislation. He's already signaled that Senate priorities will change dramatically. Expect early action on a patient's bill of rights, a bill to raise the minimum wage, and high-profile probes of high gasoline prices. Backers of missile defense, oil and gas drilling in Arctic wilderness areas, and more rounds of tax cuts will probably be disappointed.

Even so, the phrase "controlling the Senate" is nearly an oxymoron. Unlike the House Speaker, the Senate majority leader has few formal powers. The new leader gets a lapel pin and the ability to schedule the legislative agenda. The real power of the office depends on whether the leader can rally 60 senators to support a program - or 41 to sink one. Outgoing majority leader Trent Lott compares the work to "herding cats."

In statements to the press and in mailings to supporters, Republicans have moved quickly to paint Daschle as "Dr. No" or to cast him in a ruling troika with Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York, longtime targets for conservative fundraisers.

But congressional observers on both sides of the aisle note Daschle's capacity for working with Republicans to settle problems - such as the Clinton impeachment or how to share power in a 50-50 Senate. "You'll see Daschle working with the administration in ways a lot of partisans will be surprised at," predicts Strauss, a Texan who knows Daschle well and who is friends with both Bush presidents.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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