Power doesn't change Daschle's style; Democratic senator takes leadership position in stride Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle listens as Carol Hefling describes some of the challenges she faces in the teaching profession. Daschle visited with participants of the South Dakota Writing Project Workshop, currently being held on The University of South Dakota campus. by David Lias The strange workings of politics has suddenly thrust Sen. Tom Daschle into one of the most powerful leadership roles in the nation.
But it is a transition that he takes in stride.
"I'm enjoying it a great deal. I kind of knew what I was getting in to," Daschle said during a break in his schedule while visiting teachers at The University of South Dakota in Vermillion July 2. "When you are the minority leader, you see it firsthand, and I have had the opportunity to work with (Senate) leadership, so this was very much what I expected, and I'm enjoying it immensely."
Daschle's new leadership role in the Senate hasn't been welcomed by all South Dakotans. Some citizens have stated in recent letters to the editors of their hometown newspapers that Daschle no longer is representing the state's interests, and is instead more focused on the national Democratic agenda.
"Obviously you are going to get criticism, and that comes with the territory," he said. "I think I represent the state as I always have, and I feel very strongly about that. You've got to come home, you've got to listen, and you've got to take back (the feedback) you've been listening to."
Daschle was in Vermillion Monday to meet with area educators that are participating in the South Dakota Writing Project. The federal program helps instruct teachers how to teach writing skills to their students.
Everyone in the USD classroom soon discovered that Daschle's recent rise to power hasn't noticeably changed him. He sat among the 15 teachers almost more as a fellow South Dakotan and a concerned citizen rather than the most powerful person in the Senate.
In late May, thanks to the abrupt defection of Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont from the Republican Party, Daschle was thrust into the national spotlight as the Democratic Party's top elected official and possibly a presidential contender in 2004.
A presidential run "at this point is nothing he's ruled in and nothing he's ruled out," said Michael Meehan, a senior adviser at the Democratic National Committee, in a recent news report. Meehan was Daschle's political director until January.
Meehan noted that Daschle, as the new Senate majority leader, hopes to put the Democratic party's agenda back on the political map.
Among the items on Daschle's list: Democratic versions of a Medicare prescription drug benefit and a patient's bill of rights regulating managed-care health plans.
So far, Daschle has managed to accomplish some of the things he hoped to when he grasped the reins of Senate leadership approximately a month ago.
The Senate approved on June 29 far-reaching legislation extending new rights to all Americans in managed-care health plans, defying a veto threat from President Bush and giving the Senate's new Democratic majority a big victory in its first test of wills with the White House.
The 59 to 36 vote followed two weeks of debate during which Democrats fended off virtually all GOP assaults on the bill, compromising on some issues but preserving core provisions, including broad authority to sue health plans for large awards in state as well as federal courts.
The legislation, which Democrats made their top priority after taking control of the Senate early this month, makes it easier for patients to secure a wide variety of services, including coverage for visits to the nearest emergency room, direct access to medical specialists, medically necessary prescription drugs and clinical trials for experimental treatments.
Had the Senate still been mired in debate over the bill over the weekend, there's a good chance that Daschle wouldn't have been able to make his customary early July tour of South Dakota communities to hear citizens' input.
Daschle is described in Washington circles as an easygoing, soft-spoken senator whom friends praise as a good listener and a practitioner of low-key dialogue and reasonable compromise.
He is also seen as a tough Washington player who as Senate minority leader since 1994 has blocked or tempered much of the conservative Republican majority's agenda on Capitol Hill.
"Daschle is a very bright and very capable senator but ? he's made it very clear, in the harshest rhetoric, that he's against almost everything the president wants done," Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, told The Associated Press.
There was no sign of the tough politician in Vermillion Monday. During Daschle's meeting with area teachers, he listened to their concerns, asked substantive questions, and empathized with them.
"I always learn from experiences like this. The teachers, I think, show an incredible amount of dedication and pride in their work," he said after Monday's meeting. "I don't know how we could ever thank a teacher adequately for the job that they do. Today's experience was another illustration of the profound gratitude that we owe our teachers."
Daschle left the meeting expressing concern that the federally funded writing program could be in jeopardy.
"The funding for it has been touch and go. One of the questions we're dealing with is whether this program should be phased out. Fortunately the Senate decided no, it should stay intact.
"What I was trying to get today was some of the rhetorical arguments that I need to go back and fight some more," he added. "We've got to be very concerned about losing the program sometime before the end of the year."