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Daschle's Maneuvering Unifies Democrats

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle. (REUTERS — Reuters File Photo)

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  • By Eric Pianin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, January 26, 1999; Page A9

    Three weeks ago Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) interviewed every one of his fellow Democrats to find out how they felt about impeachment. Ever since then, Daschle and the 44 other Democrats have been almost as unmovable as stone in making three demands:

    They wanted the Senate trial of Clinton to be brief. They opposed calling Monica S. Lewinsky and other witnesses. And they favored acquittal of the president.

    Although the Republicans yesterday rebuffed one Daschle plan to end the trial quickly, there were indications Daschle and the Democrats could well get their way in the end. One reason is simple math: It takes a two-thirds majority in the Senate 67 votes to convict Clinton, and many Republicans are coming to the conclusion that the votes will not be there to remove the president from office.

    But the Democrats are also getting their way because of skillful maneuvering by Daschle, a 51-year-old former House member who is easy to underestimate because of his Midwestern gentleness and boyish looks.

    On the one hand, Daschle has managed to distance himself from Clinton at least publicly and inoculate Democrats from criticism they were doing the president's bidding, advocating a censure resolution of the president while cautioning White House lawyers against engaging in legal "hairsplitting" to defend the president.

    But Daschle has also repeatedly thwarted the Republicans on key procedural issues, refusing to give bipartisan cover to any move that might prolong the trial and threaten the prospect that Clinton will be acquitted.

    While the Republicans and Democrats voted unanimously early this month on procedures for conducting the trial, they put off until now a decision on whether to summon witnesses, largely because of the Democrats' stiff resistance.

    Daschle later refused to meet privately with Senate Republicans and the House managers to discuss possible ground rules for calling witnesses, insisting that it would be premature and a breach of the bipartisan ground rules. And over the weekend, Daschle and the Democrats erupted when the House managers arranged to interview former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky to determine whether she could provide additional useful testimony to bolster their case.

    "Her attorneys said that not one new fact was revealed, not one new piece of information was discussed," Daschle said yesterday. "I have to believe that, based upon what they said, that nothing has changed. I know nothing more than what I've seen and read, but I have to believe that [Sunday's] meeting was exactly as we said it would be: anticlimactic; very, very inappropriate; useless, in terms of the trial itself."

    With only a few dissenters Sens. Russell Feingold (Wisc.) and Bob Graham (Fla.) appear the most skeptical of the president's case Daschle's tough tactics have helped unify a frequently fractious Democratic caucus while enraging Republicans.

    "This has been [Daschle's] finest hour," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). "What I've seen him do is give each senator the leeway to make his own individual choice of conscience and yet debate the options in a way that lead us all to understand what our individual choices could lead to."

    Unlike his predecessor, former senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), Daschle is always careful to lead by consensus, according to aides and colleagues, and never attempts to impose his will.

    "Daschle never makes a decision for the conference on his own," said Sen. Harry M. Reid (Nev.), the Senate Democratic whip. "The reason Daschle has been so successful is that he doesn't freelance anything."

    Daschle's primary goal, according to aides, was fulfilling his constitutional requirements and protecting his party's political interests, while also ensuring that the trial rules weren't stacked against Clinton.

    "He feels the House impeachment process was extraordinarily bitter and partisan and that there was a real desire there to hurt the president," said Ranit Schmelzer, Daschle's press secretary. "He doesn't believe all Republicans are doing this for a partisan reason, though there is a faction of the Republican Party that wants to oust the president."

    But Republicans complain that for all of Daschle's talk of bipartisanship, the Democrats have stubbornly refused to compromise and have repeatedly sought to use procedural disputes to distract from what they say is glaring evidence of presidential misconduct.

    "They refused to work with us just all the way down the line," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). "Behind the scenes there's a little bit of talking between the leaders, but there's no bipartisanship in this at all. None."

    Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), one of the 13 House managers in the case, added: "With all due respect to Sen. Daschle, I think the House managers should be able to try our case as we see fit."

    Daschle, who carefully tends to his state's farm interests, was first elected to the Senate in 1986. There, he gradually rose in the Democratic ranks after becoming an early supporter of Mitchell in his campaign to become majority leader.

    When Mitchell announced his retirement, he tapped Daschle as his successor. But many senior Democrats, including Sens. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (N.Y.), felt that Daschle lacked Mitchell's gravitas and instead threw their support to Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.).

    In the wake of the GOP takeover of the Senate in 1994, Daschle defeated Dodd for the minority leader's job, but by a single vote. While many doubted he could preside over the unruly and temperamental Democrats, Daschle methodically courted the more senior Democrats and convinced them to close ranks.

    Working closely with House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), a longtime friend, Daschle promoted a more centrist Democratic political agenda in the Senate and proved adroit in battling the Republicans during the 1995-1996 budget warfare with the Republicans.

    He also developed a relatively good working relationship with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), although it was tested during the bitter debate over campaign finance reform in 1997.

    Last August, Daschle expressed shock and disappointment after Clinton testified before a federal grand jury and admitted he had carried on an improper sexual relationship with Lewinsky. But after carefully sounding out his colleagues, Daschle helped to synthesize a party position against witnesses and conviction, for a resolution of censure that has provided Clinton with a critical firewall of protection.

    "Daschle is in no one's tank," said one Clinton administration source. "We trusted he would do the best he could do with what we thought was a good case, and he did."

    Staff writers Guy Gugliotta and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this article.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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