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Friday, 25 May, 2001, 20:47 GMT 21:47 UK
Profile: Thomas Daschle
Democratic Senator Thomas Daschle answers reporters questions outside the Capitol on Thursday
Thomas Daschle: An old-fashioned, hands-on politician
By world affairs analyst Pietro Calcaterra

The defection by Senator James Jeffords from the Republican Party has paved the way for Senator Thomas Daschle's ascent to the Senate leadership post.

Senator Daschle, a liberal, replaces the current Senate majority leader, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, a conservative, and he now arguably becomes the most powerful Democrat in the country.

Mr Daschle, 53, was born and raised in South Dakota, a state with so few residents that it has only one congressman in the 435-member House of Representatives.

Thomas Daschle
Born 9 December, 1947, in Aberdeen, South Dakota
Graduated from South Dakota State University in 1969
Served as intelligence officer in US Strategic Air Force Command, 1969-1972
Elected to House of Representatives in 1978
Elected to Senate in 1986
Became Senate Democratic leader in 1995
A 'prairie populist' who has to navigate a path between his party's liberal and moderate wings, his Midwestern background has made him an advocate for the agricultural industry, especially family farmers.

He has worked in the past on legislation to protect rural development and Social Security. And he was active in the Democrats' failed efforts to pass a health-care reform bill in 1994.

A divided party

As the leader of the Democrats in the Senate, he had to unify his divided party, champion President Clinton's domestic agenda, and hold his party together through the bleakest moments of Mr Clinton's impeachment trial.

And in the thick of last year's fractious presidential election, he stood by Al Gore's decision to fight on when other Democrats felt their candidate should quietly withdraw.

He's an old-fashioned, hands-on politician in the way he deals with constituents. But his soft-spoken image conceals a tough fighter and an ardent opponent of President Bush, as he is known on the other side of the aisle.

US President George W Bush
An immediate casualty of the power shift will be Mr Bush's energy plan
As he now takes control of a sorely divided Senate and seeks to block or reshape the conservative domestic agenda, Mr Daschle may face an even greater challenge than before.

He has won praise even from Republicans, such as Arizona's John McCain, who ran against George W Bush for his party's nomination for president last year.

"I think Daschle has been far more effective than anybody ever anticipated," Mr McCain said on Thursday.

"He is an affable, calm, agreeable individual who has a steel spine ... I think he's very tough when you need to be tough, and I think he has a very pleasant exterior - which is probably an ideal make-up for a majority leader."

Unlike his more autocratic predecessor, former Senator George Mitchell, Mr Daschle leads by consensus, according to aides and colleagues, and never tries to impose his will.

What does not change with this new balance of power is the need for principled compromise

Thomas Daschle
"He's a fighter, and if he has strong views he expresses them," said Senator Barbara A Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland.

"But he doesn't expect people to fall in line like lemmings."

While many of his colleagues praise him as a listener and master of consensus politics, some Republicans accuse him of partisanship and obstructionism.

"Mr Daschle is a very bright and very capable senator, but he is the leader of a party determined to stop the president's agenda," said Republican Senator Robert Bennett of Utah.

"He's made it very clear, in the harshest rhetoric, that he's against almost everything the president wants done."

Tight victories

Mr Daschle's entire political career in fact has been built on winning tight victories:

  • His first election to national office came by a slim margin. When he ran for the US House in 1978, he won by just 139 votes, according to the Almanac of American Politics.
  • He survived another close election in 1982 when, because of its dwindling population, South Dakota lost one of its House seats, forcing him to run against the state's other representative. He won by a margin of four percentage points.
  • In an important 1986 victory that helped to return control of the Senate to the Democrats for eight years, Mr Daschle was first elected to the Senate, again by a four-percentage-point margin.
  • His ascent to lead the Senate Democrats also was won by a close margin. When Mr Mitchell announced his retirement in 1994, Mr Daschle campaigned for the post, defeating Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, by a single vote, 24-23.

With compromise the order of the day, every Senate vote will likely depend on a handful of crossovers from one party or the other, a point emphasised by Mr Daschle on Thursday in a news conference on Capitol Hill.

"This will be America's first 50-49-1 Senate," he said. "What does not change with this new balance of power is the need for principled compromise. Bipartisanship, or I guess I now should say tripartisanship, is still a requirement.

"We can't dictate to them, nor can they dictate to us."

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24 May 01 | Americas
Rebel tips US Senate balance
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