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Leader of the Block Party

By Karen Tumulty/Washington

[Tom Daschle]

(TIME, March 25) -- As the presidential-campaign battleground shifts to Washington, Tom Daschle seems an odd candidate for the role he is about to play as President Clinton's first line of defense on Capitol Hill. A slight and boyish-looking man of 48, he had never managed a major bill before becoming Senate Democratic leader last year. Almost incapable of eye-to-eye engagement with the television camera, he prefers to read his speeches, softly and deliberately, from behind a pair of glasses. "He looks like a choirboy," sighs veteran South Carolina Democrat Fritz Hollings, a fire breather.

But to the surprise of his allies and his foes, the South Dakota Democrat has proved remarkably skillful at marshaling his outnumbered Senate forces into an almost insurmountable obstacle to the G.O.P. agenda. One by one, they have buried almost every item in the Contract with America. And where the G.O.P. has managed to get critical bills passed in the Senate--on welfare reform, for instance--the Democrats have generally reshaped them, sanding off enough of the ideological edges to sour the victory for many Republicans.

In his early, often rocky months as minority leader, Daschle's most delicate task was to distance Senate Democrats from Clinton and what the Senator's own advisers called an "aura of failure surrounding the Democratic Party." Now he faces an almost opposite challenge. "I have to be certain that the Senate floor doesn't become the presidential-campaign megaphone for Bob Dole, and to a certain extent, we can do that by keeping the Republican majority in check," Daschle says. "I also have to be sure that any legislation out of the Senate has as much a Democratic stamp as a Republican one, so the President can claim as much credit as Bob Dole."

So far it seems to be working. Last week, under pressure from Daschle's troops, Senate Republicans dismayed their counterparts in the House when they added $2.7 billion for education demanded by Clinton to a spending bill that would keep the government operating for the rest of the year. In scoring these victories, Daschle has a time-honored weapon at his disposal, one that Dole put to good use in the past--the filibuster. With enough party discipline, it makes the minority leader unstoppable. Whereas House Democrats have regularly fractured, Senate Democrats have yet to lose the seven defectors it would take to break a Daschle-backed filibuster.

When Daschle was elected to the job by a one-vote margin 15 months ago, virtually every Senate Democrat of stature lined up against him. The barons who lost their chairmanships in the wake of the 1994 Democratic rout quietly recruited Connecticut's Chris Dodd to run against him, arguing that someone with Daschle's inexperience would be no match for Gingrich's gale-force approach to legislating or Dole's awesome mastery of the game.

But amid the towering egos of the Senate, what works for Daschle is something entirely different: he has inexhaustible patience for finding a consensus. "He gets everybody; he doesn't lose anybody," says West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller. "That's easier when you're in the minority, but for Democrats, it's never easy." Daschle's colleagues still question whether the quiet tenacity that has served him so well as an obstructionist will become a liability if the Democrats regain control of the Senate and are once again called upon to set the agenda, rather than thwart it. For now, though, even the Republicans acknowledge Daschle's effectiveness, at least in a backhanded way. "They made us jump a lot of hoops," says Dole. But then Dole knows better than anyone else the value of that tactic. "That's part of leadership," he adds.

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