INTERVIEW WITH
SENATOR TOM DASCHLE (D-SD)

© 1996 Hedrick Smith Productions, Inc.

White House and Congress: Confrontation vs. Compromise

DASCHLE:Well, I would say that they've gotten to be much closer. There's an element of trust. There's an understanding of the need for a cooperative effort -- a teamwork that we didn't have necessarily at the beginning. They had to face a whole new host of leadership --

Party Unity vs. Lone Rangers and Renegades

DASCHLE:Well, I think whenever you're in the majority, you have the luxury of a lot of independent agendas.
When you're in the minority you don't have that luxury, because it doesn't matter what you're agenda is, you're not going to have the degree of freedom, the degree of power that you have as a member of the majority in setting the agenda.
So our salvation was really one which included as much unity, as much cooperation, as much cohesiveness, first within our caucus, and then secondly, with the administrations we could achieve.

DASCHLE:The president had a very aggressive agenda in the first two years, an agenda that really required much more unity than we were able to achieve. Well, I think you had a lot of different problems in '93. First of all, you had a Democratic majority that, as I said, was not as united about setting the agenda, perhaps, as we would have hoped. You also had a new administration that was not only new to Congress but was new to Washington.

SMITH: What does it take to get the Democrats to circle the wagons -- an attacking tribe of Republicans?

DASCHLE: Well, I think there are negative and positive forces that have an effect. I think the positive force is inclusion. I think that senators, like everyone else, want to feel a part of this decision-making process. They want to feel included. And I think the White House and leadership in both the House and the Senate tried to make that happen this year. But in addition, of course, we know we're up against the wall. We know how difficult a challenge it is, being in the minority. We've been there now for a year. We recognize that our only real hope of breaking out of this minority status and accomplishing anything is as a cohesive, united caucus, and I think we demonstrated that this year.

SMITH: What does it take, because it didn't take much to have a Dave Boren in the Finance Committee break away and change the majority ballots. I wonder what you think it is in terms of a leadership that's necessary to pull together these very disparate and independent-minded people called "Democratic Senators."

DASCHLE: Oh, I think it takes several things. First of all, it takes what I've said is so critical -- a realization that it's only through unity that we can achieve anything. It's that fundamental. And once that is understood, then it's a question of creating that unity through inclusion, by truly reaching out and trying to find ways in which to involve every senator, and then obviously dealing with the concerns that they've got, having been able to determine what problems, if any, they've got. So it's really a process, and I think that process takes some time to set up, but it pays off in the end.

SMITH: At what point in all the negotiations did you all have what has become known as the "Daschle balanced budget" actually ready, done? Is it November? Is that late December? When is it?

DASCHLE: I would say late December. We had a number of drafts -- and I must say that process of drafting the series of alternatives took perhaps a month. Prior to that time we were able to get the vast majority of Democrats signed onto the bill.
And so it was a combination of, again, including people, making sure that they felt comfortable with where we were, and holding caucuses almost daily to come to the point where we felt confident that we could present this with the realization that I wouldn't see half my caucus out there the next day denouncing it in some way.

Clinton: Learning the Presidency and Relations with Congress

SMITH: Does he listen? Does he listen to you better?

DASCHLE: He does. He does listen a lot better.

SMITH: Why?

DASCHLE:Well, I think in part because he suffered some disappointments in the first two years. The loss of the health care reform effort, I think was paramount. He obviously had a major victory in '93 with the Budget Act that we were able to pass by one vote. But I think by and large it's as with anything, you learn with experience, and this president has grown a great deal.

SMITH: There are a lot of people who said that in that first year or two, they were afraid to get into the trench with the President because they weren't sure he'd still be there at the end of the vote. Waffling was a real big problem. Has that changed?

DASCHLE: Well, I wouldn't concede that, frankly. I think that may have been the perspective of some, but I certainly didn't share that. I don't think the president at any time during his Presidency was a "lone ranger," was a person unwilling to work with the caucus. I think that for a lot of reasons it was different. It was more difficult three years ago than it is now.

DASCHLE: But I think that the president earned his stripes during this budget debate. I think he learned a great deal about how you create the kind of cohesiveness that you need to be successful, and he hung tough. The Speaker has acknowledged as much, and that he underestimated the president's willingness to hang tough, to stand up for the principles that we've articulated throughout this year, as is important to him and to the budget process. And so I've been amazed, really, at the degree to which Democrats, in particular, have expressed their enthusiasm for the president's manner with which he handled this budget. They realized, for example, that we were not going to achieve any kind of meaningful strategy with regard to the budget unless we did it together.

SMITH: When did that start to happen, and why?

DASCHLE: Well, I think it happened as early as last spring, a year ago, because I felt that at that time, as he recognized, that if we were not going to be triangulated, as the word was at the time, that indeed, it was important for us to begin meeting more regularly, to develop a better understanding of where our vulnerabilities were, and to try to deal with them more effectively. So I think it began with a real concerted effort to communicate more effectively, I would say about a year ago, and that has served us very well.

SMITH: How important was Leon Panetta personally in bringing the White House and the congressional Democrats together?

DASCHLE: Leon Panetta was invaluable. In many respects, he was the glue that held us all together. He worked daily, hourly in some cases, with the House and Senate caucuses. I think that he understood better than anybody, having been here, just how important it was to work with us, especially on something as important as the budget. So truly, he was the one who kept us together, kept us going, was the personification of the White House in our day to day contact.
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© 1996 Hedrick Smith Productions, Inc.