Two Democrats on Hill Tell Story of Party Schism
Leadership styles of House's Gephardt and Senate's Daschle illustrate the tussle over future direction of Democratic Party.
WASHINGTON — Sometimes it seems as if the Democrats' two leaders on Capitol Hill are from different political parties.
The Senate's Tom Daschle has consistently supported White House proposals, while House minority leader Richard Gephardt often has not. Indeed, this year the two men have diverged on several of President Clinton's legislative initiatives, from the balanced-budget deal with Republicans to "fast track" trade authority.
Certainly, Mr. Gephardt's expected presidential bid in 2000 can be counted as a factor. The Missouri Democrat needs to draw a sharp distinction for party faithful between himself and Vice President Al Gore, Mr. Clinton's under-study for the job.
But the difference in the two minority leaders' approaches no doubt goes deeper than the battle for the next Democratic presidential nomination. It also confirms that the party itself is in the midst of a struggle over its future direction.
In the current intraparty struggle, so-called New Democrats, led by Clinton, seek to adapt Democratic Party ideas and values to the new global economy and to "govern from the center." More traditional "Old Democrats," such as Gephardt and congressional liberals, defend Democrat-inspired social and entitlement programs and would like to see them expanded.
Somewhere in between are Democrats such as Senate minority leader Daschle of South Dakota, whose past voting record is just as liberal as Gephardt's.
Still, Gephardt's barely veiled revolt against the White House is raising some eyebrows within the party. "It has long been understood that the prerequisite of party leadership in Congress is to facilitate the president's agenda when the president is of your own party," says former Rep. Tim Penny (D) of Minnesota. Gephardt, he says, is "breaking with decades of tradition."
Gephardt is himself a co-founder of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the New Democrats' political organization. But he now argues that today's New Democrats have gone too far toward abandoning Democratic commitments to workers and the poor.
The House Democratic leader, who refuses to confirm that he will seek his party's presidential nomination, took several swipes at the White House and its allies last week in a speech at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "Pragmatism, as important as it is, cannot be a substitute for the principles that give us purpose and direction," he said. "This is a different approach from some who now call themselves New Democrats, but who set their compass only off the direction of others - who talk about the political center, but fail to understand that if it is only defined by others, it lacks core values, and who too often market a political strategy masquerading as policy."
Gephardt derides Clinton's decision to deal with the Republican majority in Congress, and he seldom meets with the GOP leadership in the House.
Daschle, on the other hand, is sometimes willing to compromise with the Senate GOP. He maintains good relations with Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi. While masterful at holding Senate Democrats together at key moments to block GOP proposals, Daschle is often found in bipartisan coalitions.
Hill-watchers say the different ways the House and Senate operate partially explain the two leading Democrats' differing stands.
"Is Daschle more of a player because institutional rules allow him to [be] or because he's just not as far to the left as Gephardt?" asks Sarah Binder, a Brookings Institution fellow who watches Congress.
In fact, Senate rules give Daschle negotiating leverage Gephardt does not enjoy. It takes 60 votes in the Senate to end debate and vote on a bill; there are only 55 Republicans. In the House, on the other hand, a simple majority rules, and if the Republicans hang together, as they usually do, they can rule without consulting Democratic leaders.
Still, Gephardt's noncooperation with House Republicans "suggests [his] pure policy positions may be further to the left than allows [him] to compromise," Ms. Binder says.
Al From, the DLC's executive director, says the policy differences are "between the House Democrats and the rest of the party. Our own surveying indicates that most rank-and-file Democrats are New Democrats. That's reflected largely in Democratic senators and governors and mayors."
Most House districts are "gerrymandered" - purposely drawn to be safe Republican or Democratic seats, Mr. From says. In these races, organized activists and interest groups play a greater role. As a result, House Democrats are more liberal than the party as a whole, and House Republicans are more conservative. Senators and governors, he says, represent a broader constituency.
Mr. Penny says the different Daschle-Gephardt paths also "probably mean that Daschle views the best interests of his caucus as being directly linked to the success of the president, whereas Gephardt does not see the reelection of House members as being tightly tied to the president's popularity or success."