Pete Rouse is no stranger to tough battles as Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s (D-S.D.) top aide. He was part of the team that catapulted Daschle into his leadership post in 1994 and four years later helped negotiate the terms of former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial.
In recent years, he has had to navigate a flip-flopping Senate majority, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and an envelope full of anthrax opened in Daschle’s office that exposed more than a dozen staffers to the potentially deadly spores.
Now, Rouse is engaged in one of his most personal political battles, working to re-elect Daschle — the Republican Party’s No. 2 target in November, behind only the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.).
“I am absolutely convinced they have a strategy that they think is a winning strategy,” Rouse said of the campaign of Daschle’s challenger, former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.). “I don’t think it is a winning strategy and on Nov. 2, I think it will be a very satisfying day for Tom Daschle and everybody that works here.”
For Rouse, the re-election campaign is just one component of a complex political operation he manages, known inside the Beltway as “Daschle Inc.” He also oversees the South Dakotan’s leadership and constituent offices, acts as a troubleshooter for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and serves as an emissary to K Street.
“My basic role here is to make sure everything stays on track and every once in a while help out with a little perspective here and there and on the controversial issues that are not just political in South Dakota, but matters of principle,” Rouse said.
But unlike many senior aides on Capitol Hill, Rouse has a gift for delegating responsibility, which has helped Daschle attract top-flight strategists throughout his 10 years as the Senate Democratic leader.
“A huge part of the culture in that office is not promoting yourself, but promoting your colleagues’ good work, and working very much in consensus and team building,” said Anita Dunn, a longtime political adviser to Daschle who works closely with Rouse.
When it comes to leadership staff-level discussions between parties, Rouse usually defers to a clutch of Daschle’s most trusted policy advisers. But that doesn’t mean Rouse was not in constant contact with Republican leadership aides, who have welcomed Rouse’s willingness to find solutions on pressing matters when needed.
“Pete was very straightforward with me,” said Dave Hoppe, the former chief of staff to then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “I think it was helpful that we could always call each other.
“He is a very decent, good person and if he wasn’t so wrong on policy stuff, he would be great,” added Hoppe, who is now vice chairman of Quinn Gillespie & Associates.
Rouse is more than a staffer to Daschle. He has known the Minority Leader since 1973, when both men worked side-by-side as legislative assistants to former Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.D.).
“We actually sat next to each other for two years and then I went over to the House and took separate paths for a while,” Rouse said. “I came back when he ran for the Senate.”
Even though Rouse is almost unquestionably the most powerful Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill, he prefers to keep a low profile and moves easily through Capitol Hill hallways with little interference. But don’t expect him to be smiling all the time.
But people who know him well said Rouse, who has worked for Daschle for the past 19 years, puts up a front that belies his true personality of a man who prefers to defer credit to others.
“Everybody smiles when you talk about Pete, because he is tough on the outside and soft on the inside and everybody knows that,” Daschle said. “I think his secret of success, his magic, is that he has an amazing capacity to bring disparate people together and create a unity in a level of cooperation and chemistry that is remarkable.”
While Rouse holds master’s degrees from Harvard University and the London School of Economics, his Capitol Hill career began in a Senate mailroom in the early 1970s and was interrupted by a four-year stint in Alaska where he worked for a Republican lieutenant governor.
Rouse said he sees no contradiction in having once worked for a Republican and now helping Daschle implement a national Democratic legislative agenda.
“I am more interested in what people stand for and what my philosophical compatibility is,” he said. “I have found only one Republican. All the rest of them have been Democrats.”
One of the Democrats Rouse has worked for in his long, storied career on Capitol Hill is Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who sought out Rouse’s advice in choosing a chief of staff when he was elected to the House in the early 1980s. After a three-hour conversation, Durbin offered him the job, which Rouse initially declined, only to finally accept it several months later.
“He has a terrific stable of context through staff and around Washington, and I really trust his judgment,” Durbin said. “He was a good administrative assistant for me.”
After working for Durbin for two years, Daschle sought out Rouse to tell him he was thinking of running for the Senate. Daschle wanted Rouse to run his House office during the campaign, the first of many political and legislative challenges he has faced while working for the South Dakotan. When Daschle upset then-Sen. Jim Abdnor (R-S.D.), Rouse moved across the Hill to join him as chief of staff in the Senate.
Everyone from Daschle to Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) suggests that the key to getting on Rouse’s good side is to express interest in his cats — two loyal companions who never ask him about policy and politics at the end of a long day.
“He loves cats, and the way to suck up to Pete is to get him sort of a cat gift of some kind,” Daschle said.
Rouse laughed when asked about his affection for cats and described them as a “good conversation piece to go to whenever you don’t want to talk about what other people want to talk about.”
The cats have also given Rouse the opportunity to take a playful jab at Reid, who has been known to razz him about the felines.
“Senator Reid called my home and left a message on my answering machine, and he says, ‘You are always talking about those damn cats, if they are so smart how come they don’t answer the phone when you are not there,’” Rouse said. “So I call him back at home and he starts on me again saying, ‘You know those damn cats ... those lazy things. They are not as smart as you say they are,’ and I said, ‘Well actually they are, because they screen the calls and they take the one’s they think are relevant.’”
While Rouse said he is “very close friends” with Daschle, the two men spend so much time together at work that they rarely socialize outside of the office.
“I suspect when he leaves the Senate, when I stop working for him, we will probably see more of each other in a social setting,” he said. But when that is remains anybody’s guess, including Rouse’s.
As for future career paths, lobbying is one avenue he doesn’t expect to pursue in the future.
“It has been a series of challenges,” he said, explaining why he has remained as Daschle’s top aide for nearly 20 years. In fact, Rouse said he doesn’t think he would be a good fit as a lobbyist, citing a gruff exterior and the fact that “my strongest asset is not my sunny personality.”
Regardless of what is the right personality fit for his future job prospects, Rouse expects a Daschle victory in November, which would keep him firmly planted in the leader’s second-floor office just off the Senate chamber for years to come.
“I like what I am doing and I love the people I am working with,” he said. “I agree with what Daschle is trying to do and I don’t have any intentions of quitting at the moment.”