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Hard political lessons from drug bill defeat

Tom Daschle and Democrats lose an election-year issue that may come back to haunt incumbents in both parties.

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For Senate majority leader Tom Daschle – the man with the toughest job on Capitol Hill – this week's defeat of a plan to help seniors pay for prescription drugs was a bitter pill.

If the vote stands, it will mean Democrats have failed to deliver on their signature issue in an election year, again. House Republicans passed a prescription-drug plan last month; after the final Senate vote Wednesday, they were blasting Mr. Daschle for "yet another un-accomplishment."

It's also a personal hit on a leader whose defining quality is an ability to get members of a very diverse Democratic caucus to agree – or even to agree to disagree, but to not air their differences in public. Daschle succeeded in rapidly moving important legislation through the Senate after 9/11, including appropriations for homeland defense and the USA Patriot Act. He also got through a farm bill, a tough law on corporate accountability, and new trade authority for the president.

Divide runs deep

But partisan divisions still run deep in the Senate. The gridlock on prescription drugs is emblematic of the difficulties Daschle faces there – difficulties sharpened, some say, by his own strategic errors in pushing bills out of committee and onto the Senate floor.

"From the very beginning it's been hard to reach a consensus [on prescription drugs]," Daschle said Wednesday. "My hope was that if we pressed this issue on the floor, ultimately people would say, 'Look, it might not be not exactly what we wanted but it's better than nothing.' "

But on issues as fraught as healthcare, it takes more than holding Democrats in line to pass legislation: Overcoming a filibuster takes 60 votes. For Daschle, that means finding support across the aisle without losing hard-core Democrats.

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