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Tom Daschle: Will the New King of the Hill Overplay His Hand?

When he becomes Majority Leader on June 5, Senator Tom Daschle won't have much time to celebrate. The South Dakota Democrat has a 2001 agenda ambitious enough to make a conservative blanch. He hopes to hike the minimum wage and boost education spending. He wants to give patients the right to sue their HMOs and increase federal aid to farmers. And he wants to cap the soaring energy prices that are dimming the political hopes of California Governor Gray Davis, a onetime party star. It's a to-do list fit for a king of the Hill--and Daschle may need royal powers to make it all happen.

Now that Jim Jeffords' party switch has given them control of the Senate, the Dems are thinking big. But some Democratic political pros warn that Daschle & Co. run the risk of overplaying their hand. "They're acting like they just picked up 10 seats," warns one top party consultant. Instead, some say, Daschle may want to borrow a page from President Bush's playbook and focus on just a few top priorities. "There's no doubt we still have only 50 votes," says Washington Senator Patty Murray. "And it's going to be very difficult to [provide] a lot of what people want."

VETO THREAT. Health care seems to have the most momentum, but even popular health measures could be troublesome. Within days of taking over, Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), the new chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, plans to move a patients' bill of rights, which the GOP had kept bottled up. He wants to give patients the right to sue for unlimited damages in relatively friendly state courts, while Bush only wants to give patients access to more restrictive federal courts and to cap damages. Daschle, of course, can send Bush the more liberal bill, but that would invite a veto he may not be able to override.

A Medicare drug benefit is also high on Daschle's list. Pharmaceutical companies and their GOP allies favor a program that is privately run by health insurers and benefit-management outfits; Dems want the feds to run it. The problem for Daschle is that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is determined to move a drug bill this summer, which puts pressure on Daschle to follow suit. But some within his own party--Senator John B. Breaux of Louisiana in particular--also favor private-sector over government control. Daschle will have to find the middle ground among his own troops. If not, voters in the 2002 midterm elections could take revenge on the Democrats, who have often pledged to add a drug benefit to Medicare.

The biggest test of Daschle's leadership could be his ability to hold the line on spending. During the debate over Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut, Daschle and his colleagues issued synchronized warnings that a mega-tax cut was fiscally reckless. Now that Democratic porkmeister Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) is about to take over the Appropriations Committee, however, the party could stage a major spending spree--and forfeit any claim to responsibility. As Georgia Senator Zell Miller says: "The main problem that the Democrats have is that people don't trust us with their money."

Bush couldn't agree more with Miller, the Georgia Democrat who will be watching as Daschle attempts to balance his party's interests between market-oriented, tightfisted moderates and proregulation, big-spending liberals. If Daschle moves too far to the left, Miller could jump to the GOP and return Senate control to the Republicans. Although Miller rules out such a move for now, Daschle will have to remain vigilant to keep him in the fold. In fact, the new Majority Leader may soon find his expanded powers are a mixed blessing indeed. The GOP may be business' favorite party, but at least one industry is cheering the Dems' takeover of the Senate--steel. That's because Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee, including new Chairman Max S. Baucus (Mont.), are pushing for the U.S. International Trade Commission to investigate a flood of imports that have helped drive some U.S. steelmakers into bankruptcy. If the ITC finds that the companies were harmed, the U.S. could impose tariffs or quotas. The White House has refused calls from industry and the United Steelworkers to get the ITC on the case. Stung by the outrage abroad over President Bush's decision to reject the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the Administration is feverishly working on a new approach. The goal: to unveil it before Bush's trip to Europe in mid-June. With ugly demonstrations expected by the Greens and others, Bush officials hope that a reasoned response will help defuse tensions. The issue du jour in Washington is electricity price caps. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is pushing a measure that would hold down the wholesale price of electricity until March, 2003. But President Bush made it clear in a May 29 meeting with California Governor Gray Davis that he is against price caps. And on May 25, new Energy & Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said: "We should not be writing into law any kind of price cap."

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