In a town where the word "glacial" best describes the pace of change, Tom Daschle's rapid rise to power has Washington abuzz. Less than a month after being thrust into the role of Senate Majority Leader, Daschle has brushed past the objections of President Bush to engineer the surprisingly swift passage of legislation that gives enrollees in managed-care plans the right to sue over denial of treatment.
Even acknowledging an assist from GOP maverick John McCain (R-Ariz.), Senate passage of a patients' bill of rights represents a singular triumph for Daschle and the Democrats over an Administration opposed to broadening the opportunities for litigation. And it won't be the last that Dubya and his business allies hear from Daschle. In coming months, the senior senator from South Dakota hopes to pressure Bush to give ground on a wide range of issues, from revamping his pro-industry energy policy to enacting a prescription drug benefit for senior citizens and hiking the minimum wage.
What makes Daschle such a threat? He is a fierce but low-key partisan, and he is able to keep his unruly troops in line--a rare asset for a Democrat. "Daschle is partisan to the core, he's very effective, and he's unyielding," says Michael Franc, a vice-president at the conservative Heritage Foundation. For Republicans, going up against him "is like an athlete's dread of facing a pitcher with a great inside curve."
Daschle has an array of other pitches, too. Although he caters to his party's core of left-leaning enviros and union activists, he can play ball with business on issues such as promoting farm exports, his home state's top concern. Unlike House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), whose fiery liberalism strikes fear into the hearts of business reps, Daschle and his prairie progressivism are more attuned to a Senate that is naturally inclined to forge centrist compromises.
Daschle managed to pick off nine Republican moderates in sealing his patients'-rights victory, and he will try to follow that model in coming battles. "He doesn't view his role as upending the President and making his life miserable," says former White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta. "He views his role as getting things done."
HARD-NOSED. Still, Daschle's aw-shucks populism unnerves Republicans. They liken him to former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine, whose dignified style masked a tough partisanship. Mitchell tortured the first Bush Administration, and GOP lawmakers say that Daschle, like his mentor, is talking harmony but acting hard-nosed. Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) accuses Daschle of setting "arbitrary deadlines" in a "reckless rush" to push Democratic legislation. Lott & Co. may counter with guerrilla tactics that set parliamentary traps for Daschle's bills.
If the Majority Leader's strategy is to depict himself at the political center vacated by a rightward-leaning George W. Bush, the GOP counterattack will be to cast him as a one-man wrecking crew intent on destroying the President's agenda. "I don't think he's going to be successful in simply rolling the President," says Assistant Minority Leader Don Nickles (R-Okla). "If all he wants is a veto and a campaign issue, I don't think that's too great of an outcome."
Daschle hopes to avoid the hyper-partisan tag by being selective in his attacks. Case in point: the President's personnel picks. Rather than mounting a broad assault on conservative nominees, Daschle aims to pick his shots. Demo-cratic interest groups are pressuring Daschle to defeat the nominations of Mary Sheila Gall to head the Consumer Product Safety Commission and Jeffrey Sutton, Bush's choice for the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Liberals say Gall is fundamentally opposed to government regulation, and they call Sutton a conservative ideologue. But since neither is likely to become a liberal cause celebre, Daschle might be reluctant to shed much blood.
GEPHARDT CHALLENGE. One of Daschle's more enduring challenges may be his relationship with Gephardt, who presides over far more liberal Democrats in the House. Both men harbor Presidential ambitions but have mapped fundamentally different routes to power: Daschle wants to put together bipartisan coalitions that enable him to rack up a string of triumphs over the White House. Gephardt, keeper of the liberal flame for organized labor and party activists, has less interest in deal-cutting.
Already, Daschle is asking Gephardt to quell a liberal revolt in House ranks that could derail Senate-passed campaign-finance reforms. And unlike Senate Democrats, who still try to court Big Business on occasion, Gephardt's House minions want to force multinationals to adopt stringent protections on labor and environmental rules as a precondition for trade liberalization.
Chances are Daschle, who now has star status as the Democrats' main counterpoint to Bush, will prevail in an internal tussle. But consistently besting the President will be tougher. For Daschle to keep his one-game winning streak alive, he'll have to prove himself a master of building alliances with Republicans while keeping Democrats from veering into partisan battles. If he manages that, his fondness for quiet diplomacy may pay handsome dividends for his party--and for his national ambitions.
By Lorraine Woellert and Richard S. Dunham, with Diwata Fonte, in Washington