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Margins Pose Big Challenges For Frist, Daschle

In one sense, the 2002 elections reinforced the status quo. A net gain of six House seats for Republicans and two Senate seats is tiny. But of course, from tiny shifts grow huge repercussions. And the reality is that the 108th House and Senate will be different in major ways from the 107th House and Senate. How they cope with their changes and how they interact with each other will be fascinating, not to mention critical to their individual and collective output and success.

[IMGCAP(1)] Start with the Senate. Of course, a two-seat shift there makes for thunderous change. All the chairmen of committees and subcommittees shift back to the GOP, and with the departure of senior figures like GOP Sens. Jesse Helms (N.C.), Frank Murkowski (Alaska) and Fred Thompson (Tenn.), there are even more committee shakeups in store. Sen. Dick Lugar (Ind.) moves back to take the Foreign Relations gavel and immediately becomes a more critical opinion leader on foreign policy, someone the administration will have to listen to more carefully and more often (and a good thing too). Sen. Pete Domenici (N.M.) leaves the Budget senior post to move to Energy, making Sen. Don Nickles (Okla.), a sharply different person in personality and ideology, as the budget point man. And so on.

But of course, the big change to consider in the Senate is in leadership. The meltdown of former GOP leader Trent Lott (Miss.) and his replacement by Sen. Bill Frist (Tenn.), along with the change in the No. 2 post from Nickles to Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), is a sharp shift in style and approach. Can Frist, who has spent little time immersed in Senate procedures and floor maneuvers, adjust quickly to the new job? How will he handle the level of scrutiny and the hardball approach he’ll face from outside and inside, after nearly a decade of nonstop encomiums? Will Frist show the same level of patience, managing 50 outsized egos who want their own way and want it now, who are unfazed by threats or pleas to a higher order, who are used to using the hold for genteel blackmail against their own president as much as one of the other party, as Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (S.D.) did in the job?

There are clear signs, at the beginning, that he knows what to do. In many ways, Frist reminds me of former Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.). Both are strongly conservative ideologically and strongly moderate personally. Both conceal tough and often partisan demeanors behind polite, warm and reasonable personae. Both are able easily to work with lawmakers on the other side and to build friendships with them. Both were easy to label as emerging legislative stars early in their tenure. They have one more thing in common: Mitch Bainwol, who was a key aide to Mack, has moved over from the campaign committee to be the key leadership guy for Frist. He knows the Senate, the leadership and the Republican Senators, and will give Frist a leg up. McConnell will also be an asset, given his intelligence, articulateness and knowledge of the Senate from his longtime perch at the Rules and Administration Committee. But whether he will devote the tireless hours to the floor and attend to the needs of his individual colleagues that are key elements of the Whip job remains to be seen.

It will not be easy for Frist. Not only do we have a vastly overloaded agenda that can be tipped over at any time by events like Iraq, but the close margins and the nature of the Senate will make quick action, or any action at all, often extremely difficult to achieve. Unlike the House, Republican unity in the Senate is always a challenge. Frist will have a small honeymoon of sorts, but there will be some lingering resentment over the way this leadership change took place, and Lott will be a constant reminder of a very unpleasant chapter in Senate GOP history.

The challenge for Daschle is an interesting one as well. It can’t be easy to go from Majority Leader to Minority Leader overnight. But in some respects, the change is a liberating one. For Daschle, the past 18 months had to be very draining. He had to struggle to get the 51 votes necessary to dominate the Senate floor and force the Republican minority to filibuster or delay Democratic alternatives, or to pass legislation that would give Democrats the necessary bargaining room in conference with House Republicans. His own Democrats were a major part of the problem — from Finance Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.) giving in almost immediately on the tax-cut issue early in 2001, taking away all the Democrats’ leverage, to Sen. Zell Miller (Ga.) time and again refusing to cut his own leadership any slack for bargaining purposes, or to come up with Democratic Party alternatives that could at least articulate a position and differences with the president.

The task got even more Herculean in the final six months of the 107th Congress, when Republicans changed their strategy to deny the Democratic majority any ability to declare victory by making sure that many key legislative proposals did not get through, and by pounding away at Daschle as the devil figure.

Now Daschle doesn’t have to court Miller on a daily or hourly basis. He doesn’t need all his Democrats, or 51 votes on most occasions. He needs 41. Obviously, Democrats can’t filibuster everything. They won’t need to. A half-dozen Members can use rolling holds to frustrate nominations and bills from coming to the floor when Republicans want them to, and the leaders can use the rules — both Daschle and Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.), his indefatigable Whip, know them very well, and of course, Sen. Robert Byrd (W.Va.) is the master of that universe — to tie the Senate in knots.

But his life won’t be a piece of cake either. To his chagrin he learned that this president has an extraordinary ability to command the bully pulpit and turn issues against Senate Democrats — witness the Department of Homeland Security. Moreover, capturing even 41 votes will be a challenge, when up to a half-dozen Democrats in the Senate will be absent regularly running for president. Forty-one out of 49 is not all that tough; 41 out of 44 is. Daschle, fortunately, will not be one of the absent ones. His continued role as leader is good news for Democrats and makes for a more formidable challenge to both Frist and Bush.

The House has its own interesting changes in store. I’ll address them next.

Congress Inside Out will appear every Wednesday when Congress is in session.

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