It's 10:45 a.m. in the Robert Byrd Room, just across the corridor from the Senate floor. A heavy wooden door opens and Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, nattily dressed and wearing scholarly glasses, strides into the space - which is crammed with Indian artifacts, reporters, and cameras - and takes a seat.
A Daschle "dugout" is about to begin. They're daily press briefings that the Senate's top Democrat manages adroitly - so adroitly, in fact, that they've become one of his main publicity tools. And when your party is in the minority on Capitol Hill, publicity is one of the best methods at your disposal to try and counter the majority's superiority in votes.
Today, for instance, Senator Daschle wants to talk about education. The previous week he gave out a toll-free phone number and asked the public to call with horror stories about dilapidated schools. But he knows the assembled reporters will want to talk about other subjects, as is a reporter's wont. Daschle's strategy: Employ sarcasm, and plunge ahead with your own agenda.
"I know that we have just been inundated with press inquiries about how well our e-mail and phone calls went on the 800 number last week," he says. "And this little chart here shows that we had 330 e-mail messages and 412 phone calls so far in the last week. And, in all seriousness, we've had some extraordinary stories - in fact one from my own state - that I thought I'd relate to you."
The assembled media scriveners have a handout with the excerpts the senator is reading to push a Democratic proposal to help states and local school districts build and repair schools. "I see you're all writing furiously here," Daschle observes, eliciting laughter from the press. "So I know this is really going to be up there on the top [of your newspaper reports]."
The main task of the Senate Democrats' leader is doing whatever he can to advance his caucus's, and often the White House's, agenda. What's new here is Daschle's use of press briefings - televised live or tape-delayed on C-SPAN - to highlight issues Democrats think are important and to skewer the Republicans. Taking a page from Speaker Newt Gingrich - who, first as a back-bencher in the House of Representatives and then as minority whip, used the House's televised one-minute speeches to further his cause and launch the GOP takeover - Daschle's dugouts are an important part of his daily drill.
Since the majority leader controls the Senate schedule and agenda, the minority leader can often do little except block legislation and try to get the majority to deal. With the daily briefings, Daschle has added an important arrow to his quiver.
By tradition, such dugouts were always held by the majority leader, in this case Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi. The leader would invite reporters onto the Senate floor before the senior chamber convened each day and brief them on what was going to happen and on majority views on the issues.
But when Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas became majority leader after the 1994 elections, the briefings came to a halt. One veteran Capitol Hill reporter says he can only remember one in the entire year and a half Senator Dole held the office. Daschle apparently saw an opening and moved in. His daily briefings now draw 20 to 30 reporters from the wire services, major newspapers, television networks, CNN, Fox News, and hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens watching on C-SPAN.
The diminutive South Dakotan, described by Congressional Quarterly as "mild-mannered" and a "low-key consensus builder," was elected Democratic leader after his mentor, Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, retired in 1994.
He won by a single vote over the more senior Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut. Ironically, the senator who broke the tie, Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, later switched to the Republican Party.
While an earnest politician, Daschle is not above poking a little fun at himself and his press clippings. On the morning that a column by conservative Robert Novak characterized his style, Daschle walked into the room, held out his "iron fist" and announced he was now putting on his velvet glove.
While not given to histrionics, Daschle can dole out a heavy dose of partisan rhetoric when he feels the situation calls for it. The same day as the education briefing, a reporter asked him about Republican criticism of President Clinton's budget. As usual, Daschle was light on his feet and quick with a retort.
"Well, I hope somebody asks them, Where's yours? I mean, if [Senator Lott] doesn't think this [budget is] real, that implies that he has a real one that he'd like to share. Is he putting it in his coat pocket in the hope that he'll reveal it at some later time? Or what is it that is more real about the Republican position? I mean, you can kind of make up and go along here, and that's apparently what the Republicans are doing. The only thing real that they had that had any relationship to a budget was a tax plan that the majority leader introduced, and now that's even in doubt.... So I'm not sure what's real and what isn't, from the Republican perspective."
Majority leader Lott, himself no slouch at dealing with the press, has restarted dugouts, although he has met formally with the press far fewer times than Daschle. Lott has told reporters he'd like to step up the number of dugouts and move some back onto the Senate floor. Perhaps he sees Daschle in his rear-view mirror.