Daschle Fires Away at Frist

Posted December 5, 2003 at 6:21pm

Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) accused Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) of taking too much direction from conservatives, leading to the mismanagement of the Senate and shutting Democrats out of key negotiations.

“I think a lot of the decisions, if he made them completely independently and without regard for whatever pressure he was feeling, my sense is that there are occasions when those decisions might have been different,” Daschle said in an end-of-the-session interview last week.

Frist, Daschle said, “oftentimes is under great caucus pressure that is reflected, I think, oftentimes in his decisions and his comments.”

[IMGCAP(1)] Daschle expressed a “great deal of admiration” for his counterpart on a personal level, but suggested that Frist is not always able to keep his more conservative colleagues in check.

“I think that whatever decisions the caucus, the Republican caucus has made — that are not entirely Senator Frist’s to make — I think have been wrong,” Daschle said. “They were wrong in priorities, they were wrong in scheduling, and in large measure they have been wrong in not including Democrats in key moments of legislative consideration, in the conferences especially.”

Daschle’s critique of Frist’s stewardship of the chamber comes as the Minority Leader himself is facing criticism on two fronts: from Republicans accusing him of obstructing President Bush’s agenda and from liberals who say he hasn’t fought hard enough on key issues such as providing a Medicare prescription drug benefit for the elderly.

“I’ve got critics on both sides,” Daschle said. “If you talk to some of the people in our base, they would tell you that they don’t think I fight enough, that I’m not as nearly aggressive, combative and confrontational as they would like to see me and see the Democratic leadership.”

The past 12 months have been marked by a series of major decisions for Daschle, both personally and for the Democratic Caucus. At the 11th hour in January he chose to forgo a presidential run and did not make a final decision on seeking a fourth term until the summer, both very well-guarded private decisions.

But publicly, Daschle had to engage in a balancing act on issues that divided his Caucus, most recently the split over energy legislation and Medicare. And he had to show restraint over the past year when members of his own Caucus abandoned the party and crossed the aisle to work with Republicans on various issues.

At times the pressure appeared to wear on the Minority Leader, but an expression of confidence in his ability to lead the Democratic Caucus by a group of his colleagues in May seemed to embolden him. In fact, while Daschle does not talk about punishing Democratic Senators who side with the GOP on important issues, he acknowledged those who support the leadership would be rewarded.

“It isn’t my style to alienate a colleague for months at a time because he or she chose to oppose me the last time,” Daschle said. “I think you’ve got to keep working, keep building, but I think Caucus rewards go to those who are Caucus supporters.”

Even though Republicans won the Medicare issue, Daschle pledged to address it again next year as well as try to marshal through the Senate an unemployment compensation bill and increase the minimum wage. These three items are very important to the Democratic base in an election in which Democrats desperately need full participation by grassroots activists as they try to win the White House and take back the majority in the Senate and House.

Reflecting on the past 12 months, Daschle said it is difficult to gauge if partisanship has hit an all-time high in the Senate, and noted at times there were examples of bipartisanship that gave him “hope and optimism.”

Still, Daschle said he is concerned about the theft of memos stolen by GOP aides from two Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee.

“This institution gets degraded every time something like that happens,” he said.

The Minority Leader offered a much harsher assessment of relations between the two political parties across the Capitol.

“I think it’s the worst ever in the House, and I don’t think the acrimony has ever been more evident,” said Daschle, who later laid blame squarely for the divisiveness on the House GOP leadership’s doorstep.

“The Republican leadership, the hierarchy within the Republican caucus and the House, they are the one’s that make these decisions and they are the ones that ought to be held accountable,” he said.

Daschle described the first half of the 108th Congress as “one of the most disappointing sessions since I’ve become leader.”

“When you look at all the things that were left undone, in part, and you look at some of the things that were done that should have been left undone, it creates less than a pretty picture,” he said.

He charged that Republicans carried the water for big business this year and described the GOP efforts on an array of issues as “huge sops to the special interests.”

“I would say that special interests ought to look back on this past year with great satisfaction,” he said. “I don’t know if they’ve had any better year in recent times than the one they just had.

“For the rest of America, I think it was a dismal performance and I don’t think there is any other word for it but dismal.”

Looking ahead to next year, Daschle predicted there is a “50-50” chance Democrats will seize the majority in 2005, catapulting him once again into the Majority Leader’s post he occupied from June 2001 until the beginning of this year. The South Dakotan said he based his prediction on the fact that Democrats not only have a particularly strong candidate recruiting class but also are well positioned at picking up current GOP-held seats in Alaska, Illinois, Missouri and Oklahoma.

Daschle did acknowledge Democrats need to defend open seats in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, but singled out Erskine Bowles in North Carolina and Inez Tenenbaum in South Carolina by name as candidates well-positioned to keep those seats in Democratic hands.