Partisan from the Prairie
TOM DASCHLE, SENATE MINORITY LEADER
When South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle became minority leader of
the Senate in 1994, expectations couldn't have been much lower.
After all, Daschle was one of the greenest leaders in
congressional history: at 47, in just his second term in the
Senate, he had never even chaired a committee. His supporters had
been mostly from the younger generation of Senators elected in
his class. After he squeaked into the leader's job by a one-vote
margin, elder Democrats tittered behind the scenes, sure he would
turn to putty in the masterly hands of majority leader Bob Dole.
But behind closed doors, the man typically referred to as the
"mild-mannered Midwesterner" proved just as fiercely partisan as
his predecessors. He quickly managed to unify his party against
the 1995 "Republican Revolution"--stopping dead a series of
Contract with America bills that had sailed through the House.
When Dole griped about the way he stalled Republican initiatives
by tacking on unrelated amendments, Daschle retorted, "Welcome to
the Senate, Senator Dole." Even West Virginia Democrat Robert
Byrd, who had opposed Daschle's initial ascent to leader,
renominated him for the post in 1996. Said he: "I was totally
wrong about this young man. He has steel in his spine, despite
his reasonable and modest demeanor."
Now that Daschle is facing the most divided Senate of his career,
his polite but dogged approach could be even more vital. Over the
past six years, Daschle has perfected a delicate dance, appearing
at once a party loyalist and a diplomat. He has developed an
unusually collegial relationship with Republican leader Trent
Lott. Even during the mortifying impeachment crisis, for example,
Daschle corralled the Democrats behind Clinton while still
criticizing the White House's "legal hairsplitting," a term
generally wielded by Republicans.
Some of that collegiality evaporated during this heated election
year, as Lott and Daschle clashed publicly on the floor of the
Senate. "It's the least productive, most frustrating Congress
that I have experienced," Daschle complained last month. Of
course, it may be nothing compared with what he will face if the
Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans.
Anticipating that possibility, Daschle last week proposed a
brazenly optimistic power-sharing plan in which both parties
would co-chair committees.
Having spent virtually his entire career in Congress--first as a
Senate staff member, then as a House member, before winning a
Senate seat in 1986--Daschle remains hopeful that whatever the
outcome of the disputed election, he can get action on a
patient's bill of rights and campaign-finance reform, which have
long been stalled. In an interview with TIME on Friday, Daschle
said there are just two options for the new Senate: paralysis by
gridlock or a miraculous display of bipartisanship. "I think the
odds are against the prospect of real bipartisanship," he
admitted, "but it's worth trying to beat the odds."
--By Amanda Ripley