Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D)|
Last Updated June 21, 2001
seat up 2004
Born: Dec. 9, 1947,
Education: SD St. U., B.A. 1969
Marital Status: married
- Political: U.S. House of Reps., 1978-86.
- Professional: Legis. Asst., U.S. Sen. James Abourezk, 1973-77.
- Military: Air Force, 1969-72, Air Force Reserves, 1975-78.
DC Office: 509 HSOB
202-224-2321; Fax: 202-224-7895; Web site: www.senate.gov/~daschle
605-225-8823; Rapid City,605-348-7551; Sioux Falls,605-334-9596.
Tom Daschle, first elected to the Senate in 1986, is the Senate majority leader. He grew up in Aberdeen, where his father was a bookkeeper at an auto parts store, and graduated from South Dakota State; he served in the Air Force in the years George McGovern was running for president. In 1973 he became a Washington staffer for Senator James Abourezk. In 1978, as Abourezk was about to retire, Daschle returned to South Dakota, ran for the eastern House district that Larry Pressler was vacating to run for the Senate, and won by exactly 139 votes over former P.O.W. Leo Thorsness, who had come close to beating McGovern for the Senate in 1974. Daschle was a generally faithful follower of the Democratic leadership in the House, trapped far behind others in seniority; his political highlight came in 1982, when South Dakota lost one of its two House seats and he ran against incumbent Republican Cliff Roberts and won 52%-48%.
Already representing the entire state, it was natural for Daschle to run in 1986 for the Senate seat held by Republican Jim Abdnor. Daschle had the additional good luck that Governor Bill Janklow was opposing Abdnor in the primary, putting Abdnor on the defensive and forcing him to use much of his money. Daschle again won 52%-48%, in one of the key victories that returned control of the Senate to the Democrats for eight years. Two years later, in January 1989, new Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell named Daschle co-chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee--in effect, though not in title, the number two man in the Senate leadership. When Mitchell announced his retirement in March 1994, Daschle immediately started running for majority leader--too soon to suit some traditionalists. His opponent Jim Sasser seemed to have enough votes to win, but Sasser lost to Republican Bill Frist in Tennessee in November. That was the good news for Daschle; the bad news was that Democrats had lost enough seats that the race was for minority rather than majority leader. Connecticut's Christopher Dodd immediately entered the race, with encouragement from some older committee chairmen; but Daschle relinquished his seat on the Finance Committee to Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, whose vote gave him a 24-23 victory--one that brings to mind his first election to the House.
Daschle's capacity for dogged hard work, his seemingly mild manner and ability to stay unruffled, his efforts at building consensus and fellow feeling have made the Democratic Caucus more united than in many years--maybe ever--and more effective legislatively than almost anyone expected. Senator Robert Byrd, nominating him for reelection in 1996, recalled that he had opposed Daschle in 1994 because he thought him not tough enough to deal with Bob Dole: "I am here today to tell you that I was totally wrong about this young man. He has steel in his spine, despite his reasonable and modest demeanor." His first big test was on the balanced budget amendment. Daschle segued smoothly from his former support of the amendment to opposition, with the argument that any such amendment should exclude Social Security. That provided cover for him and five other Democrats who had previously supported balanced budget amendments to switch and defeat the amendment by one vote in March 1995. To this achievement he added other successes in 1996: passage of the minimum wage increase and the bipartisan health care portability bill. Congress also passed a law declaring children born with spina bifida to Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange to be entitled to VA benefits--the first entitlement ever for children of veterans, and a follow-up to Daschle's long advocacy of compensation for Agent Orange victims.
For years Daschle was a "prairie populist," resisting cuts in farm subsidies, which were nonetheless cut in the farm bills of 1985 and 1990--big losses, compared to his gains in getting reformulated gas included in the 1990 Clean Air Act and subsidizing ethanol. But in 1996 he was not able to stop the Republicans and Democrats, including ranking Agriculture Committee Democrat Patrick Leahy, from supporting the Freedom to Farm Act, which promised to phase out farm subsidies for most crops over seven years. In 1998, as farm prices sagged, he helped put together a $6 billion package of emergency aid--the first of three disaster relief packages which delivered more money to farmers of favored crops than the old subsidy system.
Through all this, Daschle's soft-spoken style, about which many Democrats had qualms, proved effective on television. He maintained his generally liberal voting record; a strong backer of the Clinton health care plan in 1994, he pushed health coverage for uninsured children. Once rather skeptical of American foreign involvements, and an opponent of the Gulf war resolution, he steadily supported the Clinton administration on Bosnia and Kosovo and on permanent normal trade relations for China. After Republicans gained two seats in the 1996 election, Daschle advanced his own priorities. One was changes in campaign finance regulation: he backs a constitutional amendment to limit spending by candidates, parties and independent groups. He backed the May 1997 budget deal, and hailed the inclusion of children's health insurance and college tax credits. He came up with an alternative to the partial-birth abortion ban, which he had voted against and whose backers were running ads in South Dakota. But Daschle's version, which would have limited late-term abortions but allowed the exception for health, was beaten 64-36; Daschle switched and voted for the ban, which passed 64-36 but fell short of a veto-proof two-thirds.
Every August Daschle travels to all 66 of South Dakota's counties; he sometimes just drives by himself, dressed casually, and over coffee or at gas stations asks voters about their concerns. That--and a whole lot of money--have paid off at the polls. In 1992 he was re-elected 65%-33% over Republican Charlene Haar; he ignored Republican calls for turning down out-of-state money since the large majority of funds for Democrats here come from outside South Dakota. In 1998 Daschle ignored his Republican opponent and outspent him by more than $4.8 million to $492,000. Daschle argued that his leadership position had helped the state. "I think it clearly has made a difference in the last four years. … I've always said that my major responsibility in the Senate is to put South Dakota's agenda on the national agenda." Republican Governor Bill Janklow frequently chimed in to agree: "Senator Daschle is in the position he is in and the cooperative spirit that he has, has been terribly beneficial in terms of Bill Janklow and his administration's ability to work with him." Daschle won 62%-36%, while Janklow was winning 64%-33%. According to the VNS exit poll, 60% of Janklow voters voted for Daschle, and 62% of Daschle voters voted for Janklow.
On impeachment, Daschle steadily defended Bill Clinton and advanced partisan positions in a pleasant but steely manner. But as Clinton's lawyers kept trying to insist that he had not lied under oath in August 1998 about lying under oath in January 1998, Daschle called on Clinton to stop "hairsplitting" in September. During the impeachment trial, as on other issues, he stayed in close and constant touch with Majority Leader Trent Lott, which led to the 100-senator caucus in the Old Senate Chamber and a much more harmonious proceeding than had been expected.
Daschle's success in holding Senate Democrats together is accomplished not by intimidation--there is not much he can threaten them with--but dialogue. He understands that colleagues will sometimes disagree with the party position, but he asks them not to go off the reservation without talking to him first--and then often gets them to agree to delay going public. As a result, Democrats who might be publicly committed to opposing the party often end up supporting it instead: inertia works for party unity. Daschle has used the Senate rules allowing non-germane amendments to advantage, advancing to the floor Democratic proposals which test well in the polls even while using procedure to obstruct popular Republican measures to move forward. He has used such tactics on the minimum wage, prescription drugs for seniors, HMO regulation--most of which have not become law, but have advanced his party's standing. He has expressed frustration publicly only when such tactics seem not to be working. He called the rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in October 1999 a "terrible, terrible mistake," and was angry that Republicans would not allow the vote to be delayed; but the demands for a floor vote originally came from North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan and Foreign Relations ranking Democrat Joseph Biden, although neither of them (nor Daschle) had counted the votes on the floor. Similarly, in May 2000 Daschle held up Senate business for 10 days in protest against Lott's refusal to allow as many amendments as Daschle thought proper under Senate rules.
The emergence of a 50-50 Senate and the election of George W. Bush--neither of them apparent until December 2000--made Daschle one of the pivotal figures in American politics. He was majority leader for 17 days, from January 3 to January 20, 2001, when the new Senate took office and the tie-breaking vote was still cast by Vice President Al Gore. But Daschle sensibly made no move to capitalize unduly on that temporary majority. Instead, by threatening to tie up Senate business for months, he forced Trent Lott to agree on January 5 to equal membership on all committees for both parties. This agreement, much resented by some Republicans, made sense in terms of political process: committees are supposed to represent opinion on the floor--and Daschle made something of a concession by agreeing that on tied committee votes nominations and bills could be brought to the floor: both parties' ability to obstruct was reduced.
But Daschle, for all the reasonableness of his demeanor, was obviously determined to oppose most of the proposals of George W. Bush any way he could. He complained early and often that Bush's pleas for bipartisan action were not matched by any willingness to negotiate with the Democratic leadership. Instead Bush, remembering how his father had been forced to break his read-my-lips-no-new-taxes in negotiations with Daschle's predecessor, George Mitchell, sought out individual Democrats who agreed with his programs, and went behind the leadership's back. Daschle reacted sharply when Democrat Zell Miller, appointed in July 2000 to replace Republican Paul Coverdell, endorsed Bush's tax cut and backed Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft; Miller had broken Daschle's unwritten rule of not consulting with him first, and giving Daschle an opportunity to persuade him to delay any break with the party. But while Miller was unphased, few Democratic senators followed his example. Even so, Daschle had only limited success in the first months of the Bush administration. He helped to rally 42 Democrats to vote against Ashcroft, but that was not enough to defeat his nomination--although it did suggest Democrats might have the votes to filibuster Bush nominees for judgeships. He attacked the Bush tax cuts early and often, arguing that they would produce budget deficits as he said the 1981 Reagan tax cuts had, and saying that they would give rich people enough money to buy a Lexus but middle-class taxpayers only enough to buy a muffler. He held just enough Democratic votes to force Republicans to accept a lower, $1.2 trillion tax cut in the Senate in April 2001. But in May 2001 John Breaux and his bloc of Democrats and Republicans delivered agreement on a $1.3 trillion tax cut--not a full victory for Bush, but not at all Daschle's preferred outcome.
It was the tax cut, nevertheless, that led to Daschle regaining his post as majority leader. Vermont Republican James Jeffords had helped force Republicans to compromise on the tax cut, and Daschle and Democratic Whip Harry Reid reached out to Jeffords just as his relations with Republican leaders began to deteriorate. In June 2001, when Jeffords officially switched his party affiliation from Republican to become an independent who votes with the Democrats for organizational purposes--much like Vermont's socialist House member Bernie Sanders--Daschle became majority leader in a 50-49-1 Senate. The power-sharing agreement was declared null and void, and Daschle was left to negotiate a new organizational agreement with Republicans. "At a time when Americans are evenly divided about their choices of leaders, they are unified in their demand for action," he said "We need to prove to the American people that we can overcome the lines that all too often divide us. We need to prove we can do the work the American people have sent us to do."
For all his national importance, Daschle keeps a sharp eye on South Dakota. He sponsored a bill to increase the Agriculture Department's power to bring antitrust suits and opposed the threatened purchase of IBP by Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods. He sponsored a bill to eliminate MTBE in reformulated gas but to retain requirements to use ethanol--the Bush administration in June 2001 ruled that California had to use ethanol instead of MTBE, much to Daschle's pleasure. He helped pass a six-state pilot project to allow farmers to enroll plots of five acres and less of wetlands into the Conservation Reserve Program: good for South Dakota pheasant habitat. He favored bankruptcy reform, strongly backed by credit card companies. He worked shrewdly to get a two-year reprieve on the Clinton administration's ban on snowmobiling on federal lands. He supported the Fish and Wildlife Service and Army Corps of Engineer's proposal to allow a spring rise in the water of the Missouri River, to imitate its natural state and help preserve the endangered piping plover, least tern and pallid sturgeon; when Missouri's Christopher Bond, eager to avoid spring floods and to maintain summer river levels for barges, pushed to stop that proposal, Daschle got Bill Clinton to declare that he would veto the entire bill over the issue: this is likely to come up again in the 107th Congress. He has secured $23 million for the Eastern Dakota Expressway from I-29 to Aberdeen and $29 million for the Heartland Expressway Southeast Connector around Rapid City: it has probably not escaped his notice that almost all of South Dakota's recent growth has come in counties served by interstate highways.
Daschle comes up for reelection in 2004. He seems entirely unphased by the prospect of facing South Dakota voters in the same year as George W. Bush, who got 60% of the vote in 2000 and who, if his administration seems successful, may get even more for reelection. Or perhaps, as some think, he is thinking of running for president that year. He is not an implausible candidate, but a campaign would require him to spend much time away from the Capitol and South Dakota's 66 counties--something which, as of early 2001, he seemed disinclined to do.
|National Journal Ratings|
Key Votes of the 106th Congress
|1. Educ. Savings Accts.
|2. Prescrip. Drug Benefit
|3. Delay Ergonomic Standards
|4. Phase Out Estate Tax
|5. Review Movie Violence
|6. Gun Show Bckgrnd. Checks
| 7. Ban Part.-Birth Abortion
| 8. Broaden Hate Crimes List
| 9. NATO War in Serbia
|10. Table Cuba Travel Ban
|11. Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty
|12. Perm. Trade with China
||Thomas A. Daschle (D)
|Ron Schmidt (R)
||Thomas A. Daschle (D)
||Thomas A. Daschle (D)
|Charlene Haar (R)
|1998||Receipts||Receipts from PACs||Expenditures|
|Thomas A. Daschle (D)
|Ron Schmidt (R)
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