Daschle Quits Senate CODEL

Posted June 4, 2004 at 6:36pm

A bipartisan fact-finding mission to Iraq slated to include the Senate’s top two party leaders was scrapped this past weekend after Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was unable to receive a commitment to meet with senior Iraqi officials.

Instead, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) was joined by GOP Sens. Bob Bennett (Utah) and John Ensign (Nev.) Saturday on the trip to the war-torn nation. Daschle and Frist met several times last week to discuss a proposed schedule, keeping the discussion private because of security concerns. Coalition forces, led by U.S. troops, have been battling daily with Iraqis loyal to cleric Moktada al-Sadr, as well as foreign fighters responding to al Qaeda’s call to arms.

When it came time last week to commit to the trip, Daschle withdrew because the itinerary was uncertain, but an aide said he plans on making a trip to the country in the future.

“Senator Daschle had some specific things he wanted to see and do in Iraq, and at the time when he had to make a final decision the schedule was still fluid,” said Todd Webster, a spokesman for the South Dakota Democrat. “He decided it would be better to reschedule the trip at a later date this year.”

This was the second time a trip by Daschle and Frist was canceled. The first fact-finding mission was called off for security reasons.

Daschle’s office would not speak directly to what specifically he wanted to see or who he wanted to meet with, only indicating he hoped to visit with members of the Iraqi Governing Council. The council disbanded on Tuesday when United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi chose an interim president and prime minister in the lead-up to the June 30 handover of power to the Iraqis.

A Pentagon official was unable to comment directly on why the Daschle-Frist trip failed to come off, but added that the Defense Department attempts to meet any requests that it gets from Capitol Hill.

“We’ve had over 200 Members of Congress visit Iraq,” said Bryan Whitman, assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs. “We work very hard to accommodate all the Members’ desires to visit with our forces.”

Amy Call, a spokeswoman for Frist, said Friday that the Majority Leader wanted to visit the country before the official handover takes place.

“He felt it was extremely important to go over there and show support for our troops as well as have firsthand knowledge of the situation on the ground and meet with the new Iraqi government officials,” she said.

A tentative schedule had Frist and his GOP colleagues meeting with the new interim government officials, visiting a hospital and the possibility of touring the Abu Ghraib prison, the scene of the prisoner-abuse scandal.

The joint appearance of the two Senate leaders in Iraq would have been a symbolic demonstration to the international community that Congress is committed to helping rebuild Iraq. It would have also sent a strong signal back to Capitol Hill that the two leaders are capable of working together despite Frist’s intervention into Daschle’s re-election bid and the struggle for control of the Senate majority.

In addition to raising money directly for Daschle’s challenger, former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.), Frist has also visited the state to campaign on Thune’s behalf, an extraordinary action for one Senate leader to do to another. Unlike the open but politically charged relationship that existed between Daschle and former Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Frist and the South Dakota Democrat have yet to establish the type of bond that has existed between previous Senate leaders.

Still, partisan bitterness between the two political parties is ever present and has only been heightened by an election year in which control of Congress and the White House is on the line.

Senate Republicans charge that Daschle is leading a campaign to obstruct all but the most critical legislation, such as spending bills, from passing the Senate this year. Democrats counter that Republicans, acting on behalf of President Bush, are pushing an extremist agenda that is designed more to score ideological political points with the GOP base than actually reach compromises with the Democratic minority.

But there have been some areas where Daschle and Frist have reached agreement in recent weeks, demonstrating that both sides will compromise when it suits their political needs.

For instance, Daschle and Frist, after extensive consultations with the White House, reached an deal in mid-May to allow 25 judicial nominees to move through the Senate in return for a pledge from Bush not to make any more recess appointments this year.

In addition, Daschle agreed last week to allow conferees to be appointed to a House-Senate committee debating a massive, six-year highway bill, although the chances for that bill to move this year are still considered poor.