U.S. Senate: An Earthquake Under the Surface
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IFILL: At first glance, nothing much has changed in the United
States Senate. It is still almost evenly split between Democrats
and Republicans -- 51 to 49, with Jim Jeffords of Vermont as the
lone independent. The chamber is being led by two men who at first
blush seem mild-mannered and conciliatory.
BILL FRIST: Indeed it is my hope that in this Congress we will
be defined by achievement as well as a cooperative spirit.
TOM DASCHLE: Let me congratulate the majority leader. I have little
doubt that we will be led well, and we will be led fairly.
IFILL: But the political equivalent of an earthquake has shaken
the nation's most deliberative body -- with Mississippi Republican
Trent Lott ushered from office after remarks which appeared to
endorse segregation; with Tennessee surgeon and leadership novice
Bill Frist's rise to the top job; and with Democratic leader Tom
Daschle's decision not to run for president in 2004.
are you relieved that you're not running for president?
TOM DASCHLE: I am. I am. I've been weighing this decision so carefully
for many weeks now, and it feels good to have it behind me.
IFILL: Daschle's decision has freed him to pursue a full-throated
critique of the Bush administration and of the Republicans he
has promised to work with.
TOM DASCHLE: We can somehow find the resources to give more tax
breaks to 226,000 millionaires, but we do not have $5 billion
to live up to our constitutional obligations. That is bizarre!
IFILL: Already the Senate has been engaged in some pretty fractious
you think the Democrats will have a louder, perhaps more raucous
voice in all of this debate in the next year?
TOM DASCHLE: Absolutely, you know if I hear one word that describes
our Democratic mood right now, it's "fight". We really
believe that we've got to fight for the things we believe in and
fight against the things that we think undermine those dreams
and those goals.
IFILL: Frist is the new kid on the block. A prosperous transplant
surgeon, politics is his second career. He didn't even vote until
1988. But he was widely reported to be the president's pick to
run the senate.
some of your Republican colleagues are a little bit nervous about
that. Are you too close to this president?
BILL FRIST: You know, it is fascinating, as I watch the media
sort of pick up and say who is this guy Frist and, you know, what
is he doing over the last several weeks. And my relationship with
the president is overplayed in the sense that it's like, that
you know, we're sitting on the phone all the time, talking, plotting,
and planning. And that's just simply not the case. But we are
both Republican; we both believe in working across the aisle and
getting things done. So, sure, I'm proud to be sort of even put
in the same sentence with this president of the United States.
But I'm majority leader of the United States Senate and our constitution
really spells it out pretty quickly.
co-equal branch of government, means that our responsibility is
very different than the president's. Yes, in terms of agenda,
we can work together, but at the end of the day, we're going to
debate, we're going to amend and this legislative body is going
to make its decisions.
IFILL: Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt
University in Nashville, has watched Frist's political development.
OPPENHEIMER, Vanderbilt University: I think it's a similar challenge
as if he'd gone from being a heart transplant surgeon to being
a hospital administrator or the chief of surgery. All of a sudden
you have to -- instead of just worrying about what you're doing
in the course of legislation -- you have to worry about managing
the institution, and scheduling the institution, and keeping things
running smoothly. And that means, you know, bargaining with senators,
negotiating unanimous consent agreements, communicating with the
some ways, part of the job is being like a traffic cop, but it's
being like a traffic cop in New York City where all the people
are either cab drivers or jaywalkers, and nobody necessarily has
to pay attention to you because they all have their independent
bases of power.
IFILL: Frist, naturally, prefers a medical analogy.
BILL FRIST: When I started in heart/lung transplants or taking
the heart out of one person and putting it in another and a lung
out of one person and putting it in another, I didn't know how
good I would be. I knew to get there it took large teams to do
it. It's not just the surgeon making the incision and lifting
the organs out, but it really just takes huge teams. And now,
in the United States Senate, initially and as majority leader,
I know that I've got to rely on people a lot smarter than me,
who've been around a lot longer; who've thought about issues more.
So, I know what the goal is.
IFILL: Among the issues Frist and Daschle will battle over: The
budget. President Bush has proposed $670 billion in tax cuts.
TOM DASCHLE: The president's tax plan -- that is a nonstarter.
That is not going to happen.
BILL FRIST: First of all, no it's not dead.
IFILL: And judges. President Bush has re-nominated Mississippi's
Charles Pickering and has also nominated several conservative
jurists to the federal bench.
BILL FRIST: I will look at their qualifications and make decisions.
I will start absolutely, supporting these nominations as they
TOM DASCHLE: I think we have the votes, whether it's through a
filibuster or straight up or down to defeat the Pickering nomination.
IFILL: These issues and others have the potential to slow the
senate to a crawl, if not to flat-out gridlock.
it easier to marshal unity when you are in the minority rather
than when you're in the majority?
TOM DASCHLE: Yes, it is.
TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think in part it's psychological. We're fighting
for a cause here that requires, I think, more unity in part because
we feel on the defensive. You're generally on the offensive, and
sometimes there is a difference of opinion about what that offense
should look like when you're in the majority. And it's even more
troubling when you only have a one-vote majority because you have
to make sure you have every single vote lined up. And that requires
a lot of compromise, so you lose some of the energy in the compromise.
So it's a far more complicated strategy to employ as a member
of a very fragile majority.
IFILL: When you define power as stopping something, don't you
run the risk of being deemed an obstructionist, as you have been
TOM DASCHLE: Well, you do, but sometimes you have to wear that
badge proudly. Right now I view as a major responsibility for
our caucus being the brakes on inadvisable Bush policy, and we're
going to do it proudly and aggressively.
IFILL: How would you characterize your relationship with Tom Daschle?
BILL FRIST: It's a good question, because Tom and I had--up until
two weeks ago--had had no opportunity to work side-by-side. So,
I'm sure he looks at me saying, you know, who is this guy? Can
I trust him? We've got partisanship, we can have gridlock, but
at this moment in history, is there time for us to really work
together? So, I'm sure he's sizing me up. And I am, him.
IFILL: The two leaders, do in fact, appear to be circling each
it work to your advantage that you have a novice majority leader
in Bill Frist?
TOM DASCHLE: Well, I told some of my colleagues this morning that
I think it would be a big mistake to underestimate Bill Frist.
He has a stellar reputation, an experience level that may not
be in keeping with past majority leaders, but I think it would
be a mistake and I'm not going to do that. I fully expect that
he will be a very effective and successful Republican leader.
IFILL: Both leaders also recognize that even if they get past
the procedural debates to domestic policy, the looming possibility
of war in Iraq could yet overshadow everything else they plan
to do this year.
and peace and politics. As the 108th session begins, each fighter
is taking his corner.