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Daschle Vows to Keep Heat on Bush

Despite facing a barrage of criticism for denouncing President Bush’s pre-war diplomatic efforts, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said he will not hesitate to question Bush’s actions in the future if he thinks they are misguided.

In doing so, Daschle will play a similar role to that of his mentor and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine), who acted as an aggressive Majority Leader in 1992 and in turn helped then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton defeat President George H.W. Bush.

“I don’t see it necessarily as taking down the president, but just expressing in a national context where are our positions are and what our purpose is,” Daschle said in an interview Monday, as the Senate closes in on the first 100 days of the 108th Congress.

By Daschle’s account, the first quarter of the new Congress has been an extremely successful period for Democrats who so far have beaten back GOP attempts to drill for gas and oil in Alaska, cut Bush’s proposed tax cut in half and continue to deny Miguel Estrada a seat on a federal appeals court.

But even as Democrats adjust to their new role as the minority party, the past few months have been rocky for Daschle, who has faced constant criticism from Republicans for his blunt assessments of Bush’s stewardship of the country.

“My guess is their focus will turn to their Democratic opponent when that opponent becomes known,” Daschle said of his GOP detractors. “But I suspect up until then they will continue to do what they have done for the last few years which is to find as many ways to focus on my opposition as they have.”

Until then, Daschle said he will continue to speak out, and the Minority Leader voiced no regrets for saying last month that he was “saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we’re now forced to war.”

“Not sole spokesperson, but a spokesperson for our party until we have a nominee,” is how he summed up his role this week.

Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) noted that Daschle faces an even taller order than Mitchell did against the first Bush administration.

“George Mitchell’s job was so much easier being in the majority,” Reid said.

Daschle acknowledged that being a leading Democratic spokesman is one of many hats he will wear in the run-up to the 2004 elections, where his main focus will be to win election to a fourth term at the same time he attempts to wrest control of the Senate majority from Republicans. Daschle also said he intends to seek another term as Democratic leader following the 2004 elections.

In the short term, Daschle has the dual task of promoting his party’s legislative goals despite the gaping voids that exist between Democrats and Republicans on just about every policy issue.

Republican leaders charge that Daschle is engaging in partisan warfare for no other reason than to sidetrack the GOP agenda for political purposes.

“I think he has continued on, unfortunately, with the obstructionism that marked his majority leadership,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.). “As a result, he has really fostered a very partisan atmosphere here that has led to, in some cases, the inability to find common ground to bring the Senate together and to move this country forward.”

Democrats scoff at the Republican complaints, saying their party has largely kept silent since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and that it is now Daschle’s job to voice the Democratic point of view.

“He is the top Democrat in the country and when we have a [presidential] nominee [in 2004] of course that will change,” said Senate Democratic Policy Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.). “We lived in the shadow of 9/11 for a long, long time and that shadow really muted the criticism of the president. That time has passed and now the country is best served by an aggressive debate about the issues.”

Daschle, for his part, is careful in describing his interactions with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), but offered no hint that friction exists between them. As for Bush, Daschle praised the president’s decision to provide Congress with in-depth war briefings.

“We have deep, deep differences philosophically with the White House, but that doesn’t encumber the professional communication that comes with these positions,” Daschle said.

His relationship with Frist is still in its infancy and means a major adjustment for Daschle, who was accustomed to working with Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the Republican leader from June 1996 until December 2002. While Daschle and Lott never socialized in the nearly seven years they served as their parties’ respective leaders, the two had a close professional relationship, one that included a direct telephone line to each other’s offices.

“As you know, Trent and I had a direct line, which we used frequently,” Daschle said. “I have never talked to Senator Frist on the phone where you just push the button every time. I don’t think it works in the same way as Senator Frist’s office.”

Instead, aides arrange the telephone calls between the two leaders, and the two leaders also communicate with one another through their BlackBerries.

“Senator Frist is one who likes to use the BlackBerry, so we communicate back and forth on BlackBerries,” Daschle said.

In addition to negotiating with Bush and Frist, Daschle is also keeping a close eye on the Democratic Caucus, with four of its members actively seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. Daschle, who walked to the precipice of entering the presidential nominating sweepstakes, must now work to ensure the campaign schedules of the four Senators does not encroach upon Senate work.

“There have been a couple of occasions [where] we worked schedules to ensure that on a close vote they could be here,” Daschle said. “They accommodated our request and I haven’t had one argument about being here for a close vote so far.”

And Daschle said he expects the Senators will continue to understand the need to be in Washington when a close vote is anticipated.

“My plea wold be that they continue to understand the need to play dual roles as a Senator and as a candidate, and I am very confident that is exactly what they will do given past experience,” he said.

Even though Daschle said he prefers to be in the majority, he acknowledged there is far less pressure on him now that he is Minority Leader.

“The only upside to being Minority Leader is that it doesn’t require the time the Majority Leader does,” he said. “Mentally and physically, it is easier than being Majority Leader.”

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