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Daschle Plans To Retain Post

Seeking to tamp down speculation, Sen. Tom Daschle (S.D.) said he “absolutely” wants to continue his tenure as Democratic leader regardless of who controls the chamber next year, giving him the opportunity to tie the record for longest serving leader in Senate history.

And, as his colleagues attest, Daschle said he is eager to get another shot at being Majority Leader and the “chance to show real leadership and setting a different tone in Washington, especially the Senate.”

Taking a barely veiled shot at his GOP counterpart, Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), Daschle said his top priority in a Democratic-controlled Senate next year would be curtailing what he considers an overly partisan atmosphere both in the chamber and on the campaign trail.

“The majority is not the goal in and of itself; it’s the means to the goal. The goal is changing the tone,” he said in an interview Thursday.

That opportunity will come to Daschle only if he first wins re-election in his battle against former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.), a race that Frist has made his top priority and in which he has taken the unusual step of campaigning against his Democratic counterpart in South Dakota. Daschle remains very confident about his prospects against Thune — “I would say [if the race were held] today that I would win it comfortably” — and he’s already spent more than $6.5 million since the start of 2003.

Now in his 10th year as Democratic leader, Daschle has had to deal with a whisper campaign in recent months regarding how long he will remain in that post. There appears to be almost no likelihood that Daschle would be challenged for the job. But the talk among some strategists and Democrats on K Street has focused on what would become of Daschle if he wins re-election but Democrats fail to retake the majority, with speculation centering on whether he might prefer to take a top committee posting instead of continuing to meet the grueling demands of being Minority Leader.

Thune has picked up the buzz and has sought to use it against Daschle in an effort to undercut his argument that, as party leader, he can best deliver for South Dakota.

Daschle disputed such talk of him stepping down as “political garbage,” and said he “absolutely, absolutely” wants to remain Democratic leader, whether in the majority or minority, “so long as my Caucus will have me.”

“I’ve never felt better about my relationship with my Caucus and more excited about my role as leader,” he said. “And I expect not only to be Democratic leader, but I really expect to be majority leader.”

While he stressed it is not a specific goal of his, Daschle is acutely aware that if he wins re-election and serves out his entire next term as leader he would tie the late Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), who held the post for 16 years, as longest-serving floor leader in Senate history. At the end of this year, Daschle will be tied for the seventh longest tenure as floor leader for either party, according to the Senate Historian’s Office.

But Mansfield served that entire stretch as majority leader, while Daschle has had just 19 months in the top position — a chaotic stretch which covered the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, anthrax letters mailed to his and other Senate offices and the run-up to the war in Iraq.

Colleagues say that Daschle is deeply motivated these days by his increasing belief that Democrats, needing a net gain of just one seat and John Kerry in the White House to claim the majority, are on the cusp of victory in November.

“It is the power to schedule and the power to dig into the agenda the way that you see the agenda,” said Senate Democratic Policy Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.), a close friend of Daschle’s. “Now we are on the agenda that is dictated by Senator Frist and some others.”

Coming to power in the wake of the GOP tsunami of 1994, Daschle has basically spent his entire time as leader on the defensive. Daschle admits that the chance to serve as Majority Leader with a Democrat in the White House is what energizes him most.

“That would be a set of circumstances that I’ve waited for for a long period of time,” he said.

Unlike former Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.), suspected by many to have lost his1994 Senate race because his sole focus was on beating Daschle and succeeding retiring Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine), Democrats say Daschle so far has effectively juggled his duties as Minority Leader and candidate for re-election.

“He is constantly engaged in South Dakota issues,” Dorgan said.

That South Dakota focus has come at a cost, taking Daschle away from his role as a national spokesman for Democrats. Daschle hasn’t made a single appearance on the Sunday political talk shows in 2004, according to Roll Call’s “Face Time” survey of the shows.

Like most Minority Leaders in Congress, Daschle is promising to change the tone of the partisanship if Democrats take over the Senate, and it’s hard to know how serious he is in following through on that goal, which he has dubbed his “politics of common ground.” But aides say that the partisanship in the Senate has so disgusted Daschle that he is truly committed to changing the atmosphere.

His relationship with Frist is still very much a work in progress, and in the interview he went as far as he has gone in criticizing the Tennessee Republican for his handling of events both inside and outside of the chamber.

“He is doing what he believes he has to do. I disagree strongly with some of those things. But I don’t deny him the right to make his own decisions. I think they’ve been counterproductive in many respects. But that’s his decision,” Daschle said.

“We try to keep open the lines of communication and we try to find as constructive a relationship — I should say build as constructive a relationship — as we can given our circumstances. I have attempted to do that,” he added.

Asked specifically if he was angry at Frist’s decision to stump for Thune in South Dakota, Daschle demurred, saying: “I would just say, without getting any more specific, that there are a number of actions that the Majority Leader has taken that I think have been counter-productive.”

The relationship further deteriorated last week when Frist filled the so-called amendment tree on the class action bill, ensuring the demise of the legislation and ending months of bipartisan efforts aimed at passing the bill. Frist complained that Democrats were not letting up in their efforts to offer politically-driven amendments and placed the blame on Daschle’s shoulders, noting that the bill was headed for defeat on cloture.

“It’s another element of obstruction we’ll have to deal with,” Frist said.

Many of Frist’s GOP colleagues argue the Majority Leader has bent over backwards to try and accommodate Democrats’ wishes and applauded him for preventing extraneous amendments from being attached to the class action measure.

“My only criticism would be that Bill has been too tolerant of the Democrats’ conduct,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who worked directly with Daschle from June 1996 through December 2002, when the Mississippian resigned his post as Republican leader.

While Lott and Daschle had a good working relationship, Lott singled out Daschle as the main culprit for the chamber’s current state of legislative gridlock and criticized the Minority Leader for selectively choosing which conference committees can meet.

“Tom is the problem,” Lott said, adding that he congratulated Frist for his handling of class action. “He is certainly obstructing everything, and I think we are making the mistake of not rolling them every time they say we are not going to conference.”

If Daschle succeeds in his quest to lead a majority, Republicans will have plenty of opportunities to try and “roll” Daschle in the future.

Daschle has demonstrated an ability to change course in the past — he abandoned a run for president in January 2003 while his top aides were already interviewing potential staffers — but he said he won’t be changing his mind about remaining leader.

“I love what I do,” he said. “I have a passion for what I do and I’m one of the most content people around. I’ve always said that for anyone in public life, the satisfaction level has to exceed the frustration level.

“For me, the satisfaction level vastly exceeds the frustration.”