By Helen Dewar
He had been among President Clinton's most loyal supporters on Capitol Hill and when the charges of sexual improprieties started flying he was one of the president's biggest defenders.
But seated in his office late last week, Senate Democratic Leader Thomas A. Daschle could do little to mask his sorrow and disappointment and perhaps even a nagging sense that he had been betrayed by the president.
"It's very difficult, obviously," the soft-spoken 50-year-old South Dakotan said in an interview, choosing his words carefully to avoid roiling the congressional waters any more than they have been by the release of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on the White House sex scandal and the mounting calls for Clinton's resignation or impeachment.
"Clearly, I'm disappointed," Daschle said somberly, his eyes glued to the table in front of him. "This is not what I had in mind when I took this position, but we take things as they come ... one day at a time," he added, smiling wanly.
Few if any lawmakers have done more to help Clinton and his legislative agenda than Daschle, who since 1995 has pulled together a normally fractious Senate Democratic caucus to fend off many of the majority Republican initiatives aimed at blocking or overturning administration policies.
During the past seven months of Clinton denials about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, Daschle stuck out his neck by repeatedly criticizing Starr suggesting at one point that the Justice Department investigate Starr for improper conduct. As recently as a few days before Clinton's grand jury testimony last month, Daschle was saying the probe was only a distraction from more important issues.
As a result, few Democrats were more personally stung by Clinton's belated admission of wrongdoing than Daschle. This is no small concern for the White House, because Daschle will be a key player in determining the fate of the president in the event the House approves articles of impeachment and Clinton must stand trial before the Senate.
Daschle emphasizes that he has always "worked with the president, not for him." For constitutional as well as political reasons, Daschle does not see his role as one of spearheading the president's defense. "In this matter, I don't see myself as an advocate for the president but an advocate for fairness," he said.
But, along with others, he has weighed in to keep senators from advocating "a particular course of action," namely resignation. And so far this holding action has worked pretty well.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) delivered a scorching critique of the president's behavior but stopped short of advocating a specific form of punishment. Clinton loyalists are worried that as many as a half-dozen Senate Democrats might be ready to call for Clinton's resignation, but none has done so.
Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who some thought might advocate resignation, said he does not intend to urge Clinton to resign and does not know of any other Democrats who might. He said it would be premature for the president to consider resignation until the impact of the scandal on his capacity to govern is better gauged.
For Democrats as a whole, the scandal has produced a stunning turnabout. Just months after they thought a popular president and a soaring economy would carry them to legislative victories and set their course for significant gains in the November midterm elections, Democrats see only peril in their future, including possible loss of as many as a half-dozen Senate seats and even more in the House.
Some believe the mushrooming scandal could be especially troublesome in the South and other normally conservative areas, which could further threaten Sens. Ernest F. Hollings (S.C.) and Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and make it more difficult to hold an open seat in Kentucky. Others believe it could affect all close races, which could hurt Sens. Carol Moseley-Braun (Ill.) and Barbara Boxer.
Democratic strategists worry that the impeachment process could drag through next year, paralyzing both the administration and Congress and ruining Democratic chances for the 2000 presidential race as well.
Their despair and agony is best personified in Daschle, the low-key midwesterner with the choirboy looks who succeeded George J. Mitchell as the Democratic leader four years ago. Daschle was opposed by many of the Senate's Democratic elders as lacking in the stature to become party leader but he went on to command their respect with shrewd maneuvers in battle against the chamber's GOP majority.
Daschle's words have been measured but, as Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.) observed: "I see a lot of pain in his eyes. ... There's no doubt in my mind that he is deeply troubled by President Clinton being dishonest with the nation."
"It's been tough for him, very tough," both personally and politically, said Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). "He's close to the president but he's also got to protect [Democratic] senators in close races. He's torn and he has to walk a fine line."
Daschle has maintained an almost stoic reserve about his own feelings with colleagues, leaving them to rely largely on interpreting his body language and facial expressions. "He talks about issues, he doesn't talk about himself a lot," said Rockefeller. "He's a very private person in a very public role almost the opposite of Clinton," Rockefeller added.
But some colleagues nonetheless believe that Daschle feels betrayed. They say they understand that Clinton had told him personally three times, according to one account that there was no truth to the allegations that he had had an affair with Lewinsky. Daschle has steadfastly refused to comment on whether this is true. Anything on that subject is "between the president and me," he said in the interview.
It was Daschle's extraordinary loyalty to Clinton and demonstrated trust in him that gave special force to the two sharply-worded statements that Daschle has issued about the scandal since Clinton's grand jury testimony and televised speech Aug. 17. "What he did was wrong," Daschle said the next day, saying he was "disappointed" that Clinton had not told the truth from the start. Last week Daschle spoke out again, assailing what he called "hair-splitting over legal technicalities" by Clinton's lawyers that tended to contradict Clinton's expressions of contrition.
Some senators said Daschle's statements have served as a pressure valve of sorts for Democrats who were "ready to explode," as one colleague put it. His public statements combined with private nudgings have also helped to stake out common ground to rally the sometimes divided views of the caucus over how to respond to the scandal, another observed.
But by not insisting on lockstep unanimity he has helped to create a comfort level within the caucus that allows members to respond to their own political needs without appearing to be party renegades, others said.
"He's done a remarkable job holding the caucus together," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who was his opponent in the 1994 leadership race.
The White House scandal has also complicated Daschle's own reelection campaign, although he doesn't face a serious threat. Both his Republican opponent, Ron Schmidt, an attorney and member of the Republican National Committee, and the state's two major newspapers, the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls and Rapid City Journal, have urged Daschle to call on Clinton to resign. Daschle could turn out to be one of the "heroes" if he could convince Clinton to step down, the Argus Leader editorialized Tuesday.
"That's a choice he [Clinton] has to make," Daschle said in response.
As for his feelings about his job, Daschle perked up a bit. "I feel every bit as strongly about why we are here and what we need to do while we're here as I felt at any time I've been in the Senate," he said. "I just think it's all the more critical for us not to be so consumed by this that we lose sight of our responsibilities."
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