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Daschle: How long can his iron grip last?

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted June 17, 2002

Sen. Tom DaschleIn the past thirty-five years, I've had the chance to observe many majority leaders in the U.S. Senate, going back to Mike Mansfield (D) of Montana, who was regarded as fair and accommodating, even if partisan. None has ever performed the way Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) has in terms of boldness and having an iron grip on the operation of the Senate.

One long-time observer said that Daschle has been able to get by with more than any of his predecessors were able to do because of the way the Democrats took control of the Senate in 2001. They didn't win a majority from the voters. No, indeed. A slim majority of the electorate voted to give the Republicans a razor thin plurality of one. It was the personal negotiations between Daschle and Senator Jim Jeffords (VT), at that time, a Republican, that caused the Senate to change hands. Thus, Daschle's colleagues, who ordinarily would exercise their prerogatives as Senators, have rolled over to play dead for the soft-spoken Senator from South Dakota.

And here is what he has done. He has virtually forbidden all of his committee chairmen to operate as chairmen. Committee Chairmen like to produce legislation so it will have their stamp on it. Senator Bill Roth (R- Del.) was defeated for re-election to a fifth term in 2000 but the Roth IRA bears his name anyway. Senators Claiborne Pell and J. William Fulbright have not graced the Senate for many years now but the scholarships which bear their names live on anyway.

With three exceptions, Daschle has mandated that his committee chairmen not produce any legislation. This is because he either fears the Bush position would prevail in committee and he would be faced with the sort of majority on the Senate floor which produced the Bush tax cuts (with 12 of Daschle's fellow Democrats bolting ranks and voting with the Republicans), or because he wants to produce his own version of legislation without the stamp of committee Democrats and Republicans so he can have the exact bill he wants the Senate to vote on.

The three exceptions are (1) the Appropriations Committee, chaired by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV). Daschle is scared to death of Byrd and knows what will happen to him if he crosses the senior Senator from West Virginia. So Byrd is allowed to legislate, although Daschle wants to schedule so-called hate crimes legislation before he puts the defense appropriations on the calendar during a war!

(2) The Human Resources Committee, chaired by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA). The Human Resources Committee has such an overwhelming liberal majority that Daschle agrees with what Kennedy produces. No compromise with the Republicans on that committee. Anyway, many of the Republicans on that committee are as bad as their Democrat colleagues when it comes to liberal legislation. So Daschle wants more Kennedy-style bills to vote on not fewer, despite the anxiety it causes some Democrats such as Sen. Zell Miller (D-GA).

And finally there is (3) the Senate Judiciary Committee, under the chairmanship of Pat Leahy (D-VT). Daschle wanted to deprive Bush of new judges on the Courts of Appeals and Leahy has accommodated him to a fault, so Daschle has allowed Leahy to continue to non-perform.

The rest of the committees and their chairmen have been effectively shut down by Daschle. Sen. Max Baucus (D- MT), the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who is up for re-election this year, would normally have the chance to produce lots of special interest legislation designed to enhance his campaign treasury. But there are a couple of moderate Democrats on that committee who just might vote with the Republicans to produce common sense legislation. Daschle can't take that chance, so Baucus is unable to function in the way that Finance Committee chairmen have historically operated.

Likewise Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-MD), the Chairman of the Banking Committee, has been turned off even though he has achieved consensus with his Republican colleagues on some fairly non-controversial legislation.

There are some signs that Sarbanes has about had enough and is ready to tell Daschle he is going ahead with legislation anyway. The question is probably moot, however. Once June is reached in an election year, it is usually too late to get legislation passed by both houses of Congress and reconciled by a conference committee and re-passed by both houses again.

Prior to Daschle taking over, the toughest majority leader ever was thought to be Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine. As is the case with Daschle, Mitchell sounded reasonable and was very soft spoken. But underneath, Mitchell was as tough as nails. Daschle is even tougher, which is not surprising, since he served as Mitchell's deputy, and learned well from his mentor.

There is one difference. Mitchell could afford to be as liberal as he wished to be. The politics of Maine would support such views. Daschle, on the other hand, represents South Dakota, a much more conservative state. In order to survive politically as a Senator from South Dakota, even George McGovern (D) used to have to cast an occasional conservative vote. Daschle apparently has determined that his future requires him to be Senate Majority Leader, and to be as left wing as he can, even if it means risking defeat in South Dakota in due course. That is perhaps why he seems to be considering a presidential run. If he loses that race, no one will be surprised. If he isn't re-elected as senior Senator from South Dakota, it will be an entirely different matter.

Coming up this November is a good test for Daschle. His South Dakota colleague, Sen. Tim Johnson, is up for re-election. He is a voting twin of Daschle. He is being challenged by Rep. John Thune, the at-large Representative from the state. If Daschle can deliver for Johnson, he may well keep his firm grip on the Senate. But if Thune prevails, it may well mean the Republicans narrowly re-take the Senate. But even if that doesn't happen and the Democrats retain their majority, a Thune victory will probably signal that Daschle's dictatorial days of running the U.S. Senate are at an end.

For some of us that won't be a moment too soon.

Paul M. Weyrich is President of the Free Congress Foundation.

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