Sens. Trent Lott (R) and Tom Daschle (D) are two determined men - determined to strike a bipartisan chord in the Senate, while also resolved not to give in on fundamental issues each holds dear.
But the pair, reelected this week to their respective leadership posts in the Senate, are already acknowledging that their determination may have its limits. The congressional agenda, including the prickly issues of campaign-finance reform and investigations into the fund-raising scandal at the Democratic National Committee, may make for a short honeymoon - or none at all.
"There really is a need to at least attempt to be more cooperative," says minority leader Daschle. "But I think that if you look at the agenda and if you look at the specific items that we're going to be confronted with very early on, it's going to challenge that determination to be more bipartisan and cooperative almost from the beginning." In particular, the South Dakotan is worried about the language of a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, a proposed amendment to ban flag-burning, and most of all, potential investigations into White House scandals and DNC fund-raising practices.
Majority leader Lott sees "a lot of areas where [Congress and the administration] are going to be able to work together." He ticks off a balanced budget, smaller government, education, and tax cuts. But, he adds, "[the president] is going to have to live up to what he said he wanted to do in the campaign."
Dueling press conferences
The potential for confrontation over campaign financing was clear in separate press conferences Tuesday. While Lott emphasized the need to determine what went wrong in the last campaign and cautioned against jumping the gun on reform, Daschle decried GOP delays on the issue and demanded immediate action. Standing before a chart listing the number of hearings, witnesses, bills, and filibusters over the issue since 1987, he declared "there's only one thing left to do: Pass a campaign-finance reform bill."
Daschle also said Senate Democrats would cooperate in an investigation into DNC fund-raising practices only if it is bipartisan, fair, and looks at abuses in both parties. He declined to specify any alleged GOP violations.
Lott's reelection to his first full term as majority leader puts at the Senate helm a man respected on both sides of the aisle for his leadership skills and ability to get things done. Fastidious in his personal as well as his professional life, he has made it clear he intends to run an orderly Senate. He and Daschle have already worked out a deal on the ratio of Republicans to Democrats on the Senate's major committees. And he's released the upper chamber's work schedule for 1997.
Lott dismisses speculation that House Speaker Newt Gingrich's effort to keep a lower profile will make him the de facto Republican leader. "I'm not attracted to the idea that we'll have a sole leader," Lott said Tuesday. "I just don't work that way."
Getting things done
The Mississippi Republican took over as majority leader last June when Bob Dole resigned from the Senate to concentrate on a run for president. Lott inherited a chamber shell-shocked from budget battles that led to two unpopular government shutdowns and desperate for accomplishment. Over the next four months, he helped broker deals on health care, welfare reform, and agriculture, and got a federal budget passed in time for the new fiscal year, which began in October.
"I think Trent Lott has great leadership skills," says Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska. "I'm impressed with the way he wants to get things done. I like the fact that he grows impatient with the pace of progress, because we do need to keep things moving."
"I felt I had a good relationship with Bob Dole, and I feel that I've got a very good relationship with Trent Lott. They're totally different personalities; they have different agendas," says Daschle, who himself was elected minority leader only two years ago. "Trent and I probably have a more frequent level of contact. We meet and talk many times a day, sometimes; certainly many times a week."
Meanwhile, the Senate's largest freshman class since 1980 - 15 senators - came to town this week for orientation and party caucus meetings. Republicans reelected Lott, as well as majority whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma and policy committee chairman Larry Craig of Idaho. Connie Mack of Florida was elected conference chairman, taking over for Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who resigned the post. In the GOP's only contested race, Paul Coverdell of Georgia defeated Conrad Burns of Montana for conference secretary, tightening the grip of Southern conservatives.
Democrats reelected their entire leadership, including Daschle, majority whip Wendell Ford of Kentucky, and conference secretary Barbara Mikulski of Maryland.
Lott said he would seat incoming Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana "without prejudice" pending a Senate investigation into voter-fraud charges by defeated Republican Woody Jenkins. That is standard procedure in contested elections when the Senate must determine the winner or order a new vote.