WASHINGTON -- Sen. Tom Daschle has walked a tightrope since becoming majority leader with a one-vote majority seven months ago. He fell off this month, suffering three embarrassing defeats as the long congressional session ended. Despite his skill and determination, Daschle could not dominate a Republican president and a Republican House.
Daschle's first setback came a month ago when he could not increase homeland security spending beyond President Bush's needs. He next failed to force through a farm bill loaded with increased subsidies. Finally, he stifled economic stimulus legislation last Thursday, blocking a House-passed bill supported by a bipartisan centrist bloc of senators and commanding a Senate majority.
The model for Daschle as majority leader has been George Mitchell, who inflicted serious damage on the first President Bush a decade ago. But there is a difference. Daschle, the iron fist in the velvet glove, is George Mitchell with a smile.
However, the affable Daschle faces obstacles never encountered by the dour Mitchell. He is a majority leader without a majority because conservative Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, the 51st Democratic vote, can slip away on any roll call. Unlike Mitchell, Daschle confronts a House under Republican discipline. Finally, George W. Bush has become a tougher nut to crack than his father.
The younger Bush once imagined that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks produced a bipartisan climate recalling his governorship of Texas. Those illusions were dispelled the past three months. Democratic leaders followed the advice of hard-edged consultants Bob Shrum and James Carville, supporting Bush as a war president but battling him remorselessly on domestic questions. Until early December, Daschle was in control: refusing votes on presidential nominations and denying votes on Bush proposals with a Senate majority (notably, oil drilling in the Alaska reserve). The president seemed passive.
Last week, I cornered a senior adviser to Bush who usually does not talk to reporters and received this White House assessment of Daschle: "He has been as partisan as he could be ever since he became majority leader, both before and after Sept. 11. No change. But his image is sweetly reasonable. Even my own mother tells me what a nice man Mr. Daschle seems."
The tide turned a month ago when Bush threatened to veto Democratic spending advocated under the guise of fighting terrorism. Looking a little shaken, Daschle admitted he did not have the votes.
At that point, Daschle pulled an audacious surprise. Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, facing a tough re-election contest in Iowa, had crafted a farm bill packed with increased commodity subsidies. With time running out this year, Daschle called it up. Senate aides called it "MIMS" legislation: help for incumbent Democratic senators challenged for election next year in Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota.
Surely, the Republicans would not scuttle so attractive a political package. Sen. Richard Lugar, ranking Republican on the Agriculture Committee, is no partisan infighter. But he is an Indiana farmer who declared that Harkin's higher subsidies would only foster over-production and depressed prices. Republican senators held firm, and Daschle could not bring the bill to a vote last week.
Daschle's last resort was the economic stimulus bill, which long since had ceased to be about post-Sept. 11 stimulation of the economy. The central issue was Democratic demands to provide health insurance for the unemployed (continuing the reconstitution of the failed Clinton 1993 national health care plan). Democrats hoped that Bush would accept a new entitlement in return for something called economic stimulus.
He did not. Dr. Mark McClellan, a member of the President's Council of Economic Advisers with an M.D. and Ph.D. (economics), devised a health insurance tax credit to tide over workers who lost their jobs because of the terrorist attacks. Although liberal orthodoxy cannot abide tax credits for health care, Zell Miller liked it, as did Democratic Sens. John Breaux of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Reduced to minority status, Daschle would not bring the bill to a vote last week.
This was pure politics, and no political defeats are final. However, Senate Republicans learned about functioning as a minority, and George W. Bush may have perceived how little bipartisanship pays in Washington -- even after Sept. 11.