The gloves come off

National | TeamBush gets tough on Senate leader Tom Daschle's slow-as-molasses strategy

Issue: "Daniel of the year 2001," Dec. 22, 2001

in Washington-Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska had had enough. On Dec. 5, he took to the Senate floor and angrily took on Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle for bottling up energy exploration in his home state. "The majority leader has abolished one of the standing committees of the Senate," Mr. Murkowski claimed, "and crafted partisan legislation behind closed doors with special interests and without a whimper from the press." That's pretty tough talk for a Republican these days. Congressional Republicans, remembering that holding up President Clinton's initiatives earned them major media barbs as "architects of gridlock," say they're getting tired of Mr. Daschle's ability to avoid such brickbats. And after months of smiles and hugs and robotically repeated declarations of respect for the upper chamber, TeamBush last week showed signs of anger as well. In his radio address, President Bush dropped his normal wartime unity chats and began listing all the bills the House has passed that remain stalled in the Senate. Others in the administration followed suit: Economic adviser Larry Lindsey called Mr. Daschle's delay on a stimulus package "an abdication of responsibility." Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney wrote a tough letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy objecting to the snail's pace of judicial nominations, signaling a bigger White House campaign next year. Administration officials are also echoing Mr. Murkowski's complaints that Mr. Daschle circumvented the committee process on the question of oil exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) when it became apparent in October that the Senate could pass a measure allowing drilling there. And in another test of Mr. Daschle's ability to obstruct Mr. Bush's agenda, "trade promotion authority" will soon reach the Senate. The measure allows the president to negotiate trade agreements without a raft of congressional amendments that discourage potential trading partners. Aggressive phone calling by President Bush helped pull out a one-vote margin of victory in the House this month. As the House piles up bills on the Senate's doormat, Republican anger is growing at Mr. Daschle's redefinition of bipartisanship. Before many important bills can reach the floor, more than half the Democratic caucus has to go along, and in the stimulus debate, Mr. Daschle raised the bar to two-thirds of his party colleagues. While Senate liberals like Hillary Rodham Clinton hailed his moves to give them veto power, Vice President Cheney denounced Mr. Daschle as an "obstructionist" and his tactic as "an artificially high barrier." Mr. Daschle's delays even included a threat to extend the Senate's session until Christmas, which caused groans among Senate staffers of all stripes. Many on the GOP side accuse Mr. Daschle of simply not wanting to cede the spotlight to President Bush. Washington is itching to turn the calendar page over to 2002, and partisanship is becoming more socially acceptable. Daschle aides fumed over the Family Research Council's first ads in South Dakota, the majority leader's home state, calling for movement on judicial nominations. A second ad campaign drew even more attention, with pictures of Mr. Daschle and Saddam Hussein placed side by side, arguing that Senate inaction on energy is helping Saddam maintain his grip on Iraq. "Daschle has played the worst kind of obstructionist partisan politics," says FRC president Ken Connor, "and you can't hide behind the cover of war and insist that calling him to account is unpatriotic." For their part, Democrats have begun dividing President Bush in half, pledging their support for the war effort while returning to their familiar class-warfare attack on Republicans. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee unveiled a set of 60-second radio ads that do not mention Mr. Bush, but target some House Republicans. One ad tells constituents of Rep. John Hostettler to "remind him he works for Indiana, not the big corporations." The surprisingly easy success of the war in Afghanistan and the ever-increasing distance from Sept. 11 is making it easier for Mr. Daschle to look ahead to the 2002 elections and even contemplate a run for the White House himself in 2004. But last week signaled that President Bush is also turning his eye homeward, and that he will keep adding pressure if Mr. Daschle won't send him bills to sign. Which side wins the battle could determine whether Mr. Bush will still be able to call himself a reformer "with results" in 2004.

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