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Jewish World Review Dec. 14, 2000 / 17 Kislev 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Will Daschle make it his business to get along with President Bush? -- PRESIDENT-ELECT George W. Bush (R) and Senate Minority leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) talk in similar terms about wanting to establish a new bipartisan spirit in Washington, but they are far apart on particulars.

Daschle says he was "troubled" by the "confrontational" tone of Bush's Nov. 26 statement upon being certified the winner of Florida's electoral votes. He is wary of a Republican legislative strategy of "peeling off" Democratic votes.

Moreover, on key policy issues such as patients' rights, Social Security privatization, Medicare, prescription drugs and across-the-board tax cuts, Daschle is sticking close to Democratic orthodoxy.

With Bush the president, all hopes for policy achievement and reduced rancor in sharply divided Washington will depend upon the Bush-Daschle relationship.

Even though it's not desirable, Bush could push legislation past House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) because House rules limit the minority party's power.

He can't do that in the Senate, where the rules give the minority considerable power and where Democrats will have as many votes as Republicans except when Vice President Dick Cheney breaks a tie.

One of Bush's top allies in Congress, Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), predicts that "Bush will reach out more aggressively than any president in modern times. He has a record of doing it and an interest in doing it. His Texas success can be translated here."

In an interview, Daschle said his impression of Bush is that he "would attempt to be inclusive," "would strive to bring experienced people around him" and "would attempt to be bipartisan in putting his administration together."

Indeed, Bush's transition team has floated several Democratic names for possible posts, the latest being Sen. John Breaux (La.) as Energy secretary, former Sen. Chuck Robb (Va.) as secretary of the Navy and Rep. Gary Condit (Calif.) as secretary of Agriculture.

Asked if he'd been approached already by any Bush intermediaries, Daschle replied, "Not that I can talk about." He acknowledged, though, that the two of them share a mutual friend, South Dakota's GOP governor, Bill Janklow.

Talking about the possibilities for a bipartisan future, Daschle sounded almost like Bush's former Democratic partner in Texas, the late Bob Bullock, who as lieutenant governor helped Bush get his first-term legislative agenda through the state legislature.

Before he died, Bullock told me he'd been fed up with partisan squabbling in Texas and was receptive to Bush's offer of cooperation in 1994.

Daschle said if Bush is elected, he'd welcome "a real effort to reach out to the Democratic caucuses in the House and the Senate and create a new environment, a new climate.

"This is a rare moment for us. We have the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start over. To heal the scars and try to forget the animosity that's been increasingly evident over the last several years."

Of commentators who predict it's impossible to eliminate the rancor of the past, Daschle said, "I think [they] may be right, but I think it's critical for us to try."

Asked if he could imagine working with a GOP president the way Democratic Speaker Sam Rayburn (Texas) and Senate Leader Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas) worked with Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, Daschle said, "Absolutely. Before I leave here, that's what I'd like to experience."

He even volunteered a device: "I'd love to see regular weekly meetings where the leadership came down to the White House and we said, 'All right, what are we going to do this week?' or 'What the hell did you mean when you said that yesterday?' or 'Can we work that out?' You can avoid the pitfalls that you fall into when you don't talk often."

All that's to the good. But Daschle said he thought it was "highly premature" for Bush to begin setting up a transition on Nov. 26 and to strike a "confrontational tone" in doing so.

He also said it would be "divisive" and "wouldn't work" if Bush opted for the legislative strategy recommended by Deputy Majority Whip Roy Blunt (D-Mo.) of trying to "pick off" Democrats to join Republicans on key votes.

An alternate strategy, described by its advocates as "confidence building," is for Bush to try to pass measures that have attracted bipartisan support in the past, such as marriage and death tax relief, patients' rights with a cap on legal damages and pension reform.

When asked about his legislative agenda, though, Daschle indicated that on major issues he and Bush are far apart. Bush indicated on Nov. 26 that he still favors across-the-board tax cuts. Daschle said, "Our position is diametrically opposed," though he hinted that a tax cap might be possible.

About Bush's plan for partial privatization of Social Security, Daschle said, "The short answer is 'no.'" He added that recent gyrations in the stock market, particularly the NASDAQ, reinforce his objections.

Whereas Bush wants to offer seniors a prescription drug plan through private insurance companies, Daschle contends it should be administered through Medicare. Asked if he knows of a compromise on the issue, Daschle said, "I haven't seen one yet."

On education, which both parties want to improve, Daschle indicated there might be agreement -but not on Bush's idea of vouchers for parents of children in failing schools.

The good news here is that between the two top party leaders in Washington, if Bush becomes president, there is a will to achieve bipartisanship. They just need to find a way -in fact, lots of ways.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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