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Mary McGrory

Opening Day in The Senate Spotlight

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, January 9, 2003; Page A25

The opening session of the 108th Congress was expected to provide a living tableau of the November election, and it did. The Republican side of the Senate floor vibrated with eager rookies and big-foot alumni. Bob Dole was exhibiting husbandly pride in his newly elected wife. A suddenly portly Howard Baker renewed old acquaintance. Trent Lott got his full share of hugs and shakes -- and a seat in the fourth row. But there were surprises, too: a Democratic rumble on behalf of the poor, and the sight of meek Tom Daschle, the new minority leader, upstaging his stately opposite number, Bill Frist of Tennessee.

Daschle did the one thing guaranteed to get attention for a Democratic senator these days: He declared he was not running for president.

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Frist is the Republicans' Lochinvar. Lott, the inadvertent whistleblower, gave us the lowdown on the race-based Southern strategy, and his party swooned. Frist, a heart surgeon, administered first aid and agreed to step in as leader. He sat in the first seat in the first row, but he cast many anxious glances at David Schiappa, the Senate's secretary of the majority, and compulsively consulted a big loose-leaf notebook holding the tricks of his new trade.

All was going according to script when Hillary Clinton got up and said that the agreement to extend unemployment compensation to the newly unemployed was not enough. A million jobless whose benefits had long since run out deserved inclusion.

The galleries were emptied of the happy home-towners, who trooped off to swearing-in revels. The remaining Democratic senators broke into various clusters of angry, gesticulating protest. They wagged their fingers and shouted almost loud enough to be heard in the press galleries. Frist looked bewildered, then pained.

Republican Whip Don Nickles tried to take over. He stood between the desks of Frist and Daschle and impatiently signaled them to draw closer to him. Sen. Robert C. Byrd complained of a violation of the regular order.

Lott reentered the chamber, perhaps to check out the store's new management. He observed for a few minutes and then, after a shrug, said that it looked like the same old place to him, and walked out.

Daschle, who had just announced he would not run for president, pointed out that the president's economic stimulus plan does nothing for the unemployed. He demolished the argument that the House would veto funds for anyone beyond the 750,000 agreed to in the deal Frist had sponsored. Since when did the House dictate to the Senate? he asked, and was greeted with cries of "Right, right."

A knot that had formed in the back of the room, one dominated by Hillary Clinton and visited by Don Nickles, gradually moved toward the center and oozed down the middle aisle like some giant amoeba. It came to rest between Frist and Daschle, and the Democrats gave in. They knew that if the million came to a vote, the Republicans would have to be with them, but the deadline for the 750,000 was to have expired today, and it was risky to delay.

But the Senate universe was not talking about the close shave with class warfare and a populist near-win. It was talking about self-effacing Tom Daschle's seizing the limelight and upending the conventional wisdom, which said he would go for the presidency -- right up until the moment he said no, in a press release issued just before the high-noon call to order.

Daschle had held a staff meeting at 5:30 Monday afternoon and said he was nearing a green light. His closest friend and aides were giving background briefings about campaign personnel. The level-headed John Podesta, President Clinton's last chief of staff, was to be chairman. Daschle was booked for a weekend fly-around to South Dakota and Iowa.

Nobody knew what the bumper sticker would say. The November election was a fiasco of fuzziness. Daschle and the former House Democratic leader, Dick Gephardt, did not make sharp distinctions on the issues. If the issue were decency, Daschle would win in a landslide -- his is legendary, if not what nervous voters are looking for.

Daschle's baffling waltz with the candidacy was another instance of a Democrat saying to himself not "Why?" but "Why not?" Ultimately what convinced Daschle, a small man from a small state, was that he couldn't run the Senate and a presidential campaign at the same time. If he gave up the leadership, he would lose 40 staffers at a stroke. Without that lift he was another Democratic senator being led to the Bush slaughter.

He said at a news conference that he was "invigorated," and he looked it. The Lott episode does seem to have heartened the Democrats: It helps to see that your enemy makes blunders, too. Everyone seems relieved at Daschle's decision to stay where he is.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company