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Senate sees new leaders, old problems

By BILL ADAIR

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 7, 2001


WASHINGTON -- On the historic day that Democrats took control of the Senate, Sen. Tom Daschle, the new majority leader, used the word "bipartisan" at least 10 times.

And that was just before lunch.

But as Daschle takes over, it's not clear how he can unite a body that for years has been fueled by partisan bitterness.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a moderate Republican from Rhode Island who often votes with Democrats, said Wednesday that he wasn't sure anyone can change the Senate's culture.

"We've been mired in such partisan differences all through impeachment," Chafee said. "How do we change that?"

But Daschle, who often groused during Republican control that Democrats were shut out, sounded confident that he can compromise with his GOP rivals. In a speech accepting his new position, he acknowledged that his party had a slim majority and that "we are required to find common ground and seek meaningful bipartisanship."

Daschle recalled a comment by former Rep. Claude Pepper of South Florida that it didn't matter whether a member of Congress was a "D" or an "R." What mattered was whether he was "C" or a "D" -- constructive or destructive.

Daschle said, "We need to prove to the American people that we can overcome the lines that all too often divide us."

Sen. Trent Lott, the Republican leader, praised Daschle and said he "set a very positive tone in his opening remarks." But Lott also boasted about his own accomplishments during his six years as majority leader.

"We actually did pass the insurance portability (law), we did pass safe drinking water legislation, we did pass a minimum wage increase, with small business tax relief included," he said. "I think we made a difference in the country over the past six years."

The Capitol had the freshness of the first day of school on Wednesday. The desk of Vermont Sen. James Jeffords was moved from the Republican to the Democratic side of the chamber, signifying his switch to become an independent and his allegiance with Democrats on party leadership. A sign above Sen. Don Nickles' office that said "Assistant Majority Leader" was removed and replaced by one that said "Assistant Republican Leader."

Jeffords himself was not in the chamber for the political changing of the guard. His staff said he did not want to be a distraction.

Sen. Robert Byrd, 83, the senior Democrat, was unanimously elected president pro tempore. That post is largely ceremonial but it puts him third in line for succession to be president of the United States, behind the vice president and the speaker of the House of Representatives.

So how can Daschle unite a body that has feuded over everything from campaign spending laws to President Bill Clinton's sex life?

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said senators of both parties could learn a lesson from Founding Brothers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the architects of the U.S. government. Graham said the book shows how people with starkly different ideas can forge a powerful compromise.

Graham said the book's message is that "this very complicated system we call democracy requires human beings who are willing to stand for principles but be willing to reach a respectful accommodation with others."

But Chafee is wary about whether that can happen in the Senate.

He said that both parties have often postured by offering proposals that were sure to be defeated -- and then, during political campaigns, attacked their opponents for defeating them. Chafee noted that the 2002 election is just around the corner and said that kind of posturing is "a hard temptation to resist."

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