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Idea of the Senate | Creating Alliances in the Senate

Tom Daschle, 2003

Until 2001 a change of party majority had never occurred during a session after the Senate had been organized. The minority party occasionally had more senators than the majority, and yet there was no change in majority leadership or in committee chairmanships. In May 2001, with the Senate divided 50-50, all that changed when Vermont’s Senator Jim Jeffords announced he would leave his party to become an Independent, but would caucus with the Democrats. The deciding vote of the vice president had enabled Republicans to organize the body, but the Senate had also adopted a resolution that granted majority status to whichever party gained in number during the session. Senator Jeffords’ switch gave the majority to the Democrats, and Tom Daschle of South Dakota suddenly became majority leader. It was, he later wrote, “like no other time.”

Despite his youthful appearance, Tom Daschle was a Capitol Hill veteran of almost three decades by the time he assumed the majority leadership. He first arrived on Capitol Hill in 1973 as a legislative assistant to his home state senator, James Abourezk. He returned to South Dakota to win a seat in the House, where he served in his party’s leadership as majority-whip-at-large. Elected as a senator in 1986, Daschle became co-chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee. Both positions involved planning legislative strategy and maintaining party unity, training that prepared him to become Senate majority leader under extraordinary circumstances.

During the last six years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Tom Daschle led the Senate’s Democratic minority. The election of 2000 saw Democratic candidate Al Gore receive more popular votes than Republican victor George W. Bush, who won the Electoral College. That same election produced a Senate that was tied 50-50. During the first two weeks of the 107th Congress, Vice President Gore presided and gave the deciding vote to the Democrats. On January 20, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney took the gavel and gave the deciding vote to the Republicans. Daschle and Republican Leader Trent Lott worked out an agreement, adopted as a Senate resolution, that gave both parties equal numbers of senators and staff on each committee. Republicans chaired the committees, but Senator Lott had inserted into the resolution a provision that one party would “revert” to the majority and gain a one-member advantage on all committees in the event that it gained another seat during the Congress. The Republican leader anticipated that a conservative Democrat might defect to their side, but in May of 2001, it was a liberal Republican who bolted.

As a result of Senator Jeffords’ switch, and the Senate resolution, Republican committee chairs had to vacate their offices to make room for their Democratic successors. Republican committee staffs similarly swapped offices with Democratic staff, creating the kind of moving and shuffling that normally takes place only between Congresses. Tom Daschle found himself Democratic majority leader facing a Republican president and Republican majority in the House of Representatives. He had barely begun operating as majority leader when the tragic events of September 11, 2001, occurred, and America launched its war on terrorism. Daschle pledged bipartisan support for President Bush. The sense of urgency was reinforced a month later when a letter laced with anthrax was delivered to Daschle’s office in the Hart Senate Office Building, forcing the closure of that building for three months of decontamination. Writing about his experiences two years later, Senator Daschle expounded on the fine art of creating alliances within the United States Senate.

Like No Other Time

The Senate is nothing but a complex web of relationships—one hundred men and women with different experiences, different backgrounds, different strengths, different weaknesses, different beliefs, and different points of view. Some are extremely wealthy. Some have very little personal wealth. All are given six years to prove themselves and have been thrown together to make the laws of the land. Each of these individuals has his or her own obligations, not just to the nation as a whole, but to their individual states and myriad constituencies as well. They’re pulled in many directions, and being the informed, opinionated, strong-willed people that most of them are, they often have pretty firm ideas about the way things should be done.

Often, individual senators feel that they should be the one leading the way. My friend George Mitchell, who preceded me as Senate Democratic leader, used to refer to the Senate as a collection of “independent contractors.” Byron Dorgan, a very close friend and a senator from North Dakota, sometimes calls our group “one hundred bad habits.” As I said, pulling together such disparate individuals is like loading frogs into a wheelbarrow. . . .

But that’s what the Senate is all about—creating alliances. The only way you can make such a disparate collection of individuals come together in a way that brings about the majority vote on any given issue is to understand what makes them tick, to understand what motivates them, what angers them, what approach works with them, and ultimately what can convince them to join with you.

If they choose to line up against you, it’s just as important to understand why they did that, because in the Senate, every debate, every vote, every political battle, is merely a prelude to the next one. An opponent in today’s fight may well become an ally in tomorrow’s, if you have shaped an understanding of that person over time that has enabled you to develop a relationship with him or her.

The political skills required to build such relationships in the Senate are quite different from those required by, say, the presidency. Of course, it’s in the president’s best interest to establish as many relationships as he can with the members of Congress, but his primary focus is divining the will of the nation as a whole. He is constantly taking the pulse of the vast American public.

We in the Senate must do the same, of course, but we need to do more than simply dictate a desired outcome. We have to divine the individual temperaments and wills of one another. This ability is at the root of building coalitions and achieving consensus.1

The demands of leadership heightened Tom Daschle’s sense of the complex personal relationships that made the Senate work, the alliances that had to be forged over every issue, and the personal idiosyncracies and political realities that shaped each vote. The rules of the Senate, he observed, provided the minority with much ammunition, which he had frequently used during his years as minority leader. All things considered, however, senators would rather hold the majority, with its greater authority over setting the legislative agenda. Senate leaders, he also appreciated, could rarely dictate a desired outcome. They would have to create alliances to achieve results.

Further Reading:

Daschle, Tom. Like No Other Time: The 107th Congress and the Two Years That Changed America Forever. New York: Crown Publishers, 2003.
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1.Tom Daschle, Like No Other Time: The 107th Congress and the Two Years That Changed America Forever (New York: Crown Publishers, 2003), 76-77.