The race to face Bush

Democratic presidential wannabes waste no time using their new Senate powers to position themselves for 2004.

Published June 15, 2001 10:54PM (EDT)

When did the Senate Commerce Committee's subcommittee on Oceans & Fisheries change its name to the subcommittee on Oceans, Fisheries & the Environment? Just in the last few days, after the Democrats regained control of the Senate and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a 2004 presidential hopeful, grabbed the reins of the subcommittee and decided to use it to address issues of more importance. Issues that he cares about. Issues that will contrast him and his green views with the Texas oil man whose job he seeks to take in November three years from now.

All 50 Senate Democrats were overjoyed with the May 24 party-switch of Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., whose leap from the GOP delivered control of the Senate into the Democratic Party's hands last week for the first time in more than five years. But few could be happier than those Democratic senators considering possible runs for the presidency -- a list whose most prominent members include Kerry, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Joe Biden of Delaware, John Edwards of North Carolina, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. All six, in varying degrees, will now have a much greater opportunity to draw attention to themselves and to their causes -- and they haven't wasted any time getting started.

With Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., another likely 2004 prospect, relegated to the sidelines as minority leader in the GOP-run House, and with Al Gore all but appearing on milk cartons, Daschle becomes the nation's most prominent Democrat. The low-key, behind-the-scenes former member of Air Force intelligence suddenly stands poised for the evening news, the go-to man for any network seeking a counterpoint to the president's latest idea.

And though Daschle -- like the other possible presidents in his midst -- pooh-poohs talk of a candidacy, his communications shop has been looking for someone with national experience to fill in for his regular spokeswoman, who is on maternity leave. Daschle has just been joined, albeit temporarily, by Anita Dunn, a former Daschle aide who served as communications director for Bill Bradley's ill-fated presidential run last year. Daschle's office has also been in contact with former White House press secretary Jake Siewert about coming on board.

Neither move necessarily means anything other than Daschle wants the best people to help him with his big new job. But one way or another, Daschle's new office will provide him the media attention each of his potential rivals must covet. Still, for most of them, the new majority status will promise them new perks and platforms.

Kerry's case is particularly instructive. Under the previous chairmanship of Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, the Oceans & Fisheries subcommittee's bailiwick was rather narrow, last month holding a hearing on "Individual Fishing Quotas" and scheduling legislative mark-ups on the Cruise Vessel Act and the Maritime Policy Improvement Act.

But Kerry's amended "& the Environment" subcommittee will now turn to larger issues. On Wednesday, Kerry announced that his subcommittee would hold hearings next month on President Bush's proposals for more offshore drilling for oil and gas. One possible witness, Kerry said Wednesday, would be Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who opposes his older brother's plans for drilling off the coast of the Sunshine State.

That's likely to grab a lot more attention than individual fishing quotas.

"Back when it was more of a Democratic committee, back in the early '80s, the focus really was, aside from fisheries, on the environment," says Kerry spokesman David Wade. Wade says Republicans like Snowe kept the subcommittee's attention on seemingly more parochial matters -- ones relevant to Kerry's Cape Cod and Gloucester constituents -- but says that "Kerry wants to do something broader."

Changing committee names is up to the discretion of the chairman, and while not extremely uncommon, it's notable nonetheless. It's particularly notable for Kerry, who is also changing the name of the committee he helms, the Small Business Committee, to the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Committee. "Under the Republicans, the committee focused on the Small Business Administration, but John wants it to be about broader small business issues, like taxes, healthcare and pensions," Wade says.

Lieberman, meanwhile, takes the helm of the high-profile investigative watchdog arm of the Senate, the Governmental Affairs Committee. On Wednesday, Chairman Lieberman held hearings on energy price fixing, an issue that he will continue probing next week with a similarly themed hearing that will question representatives of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Democrats like Lieberman and California Gov. Gray Davis have asked that the FERC impose temporary price caps on energy charges in the Western U.S. this summer.

It is a hearing that the committee's former chairman, Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., would likely have never held, as it highlights an issue -- energy policy -- on which Bush does not currently enjoy popular support, according to polls. A source in Lieberman's office says he will also probably hold hearings on "environmental rollbacks" -- the environmental laws passed by President Clinton that Bush has been trying to rescind, like the restriction on the arsenic levels allowable in drinking water.

Biden, the only one from the pack who has run for president before, has been thrust into the position of heading up the Foreign Relations Committee. But Biden once chaired the high-profile Judiciary Committee, too, and under seniority rules would be able to take over again, wresting the gavel from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., if he so chose.

That caused a quandary. Biden wasn't sure what to do. In Senate lore, the accusations that Foreign Relations Committee chairmen can easily be painted as "out of touch" with voters back home looms large; that's how former Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., memorably unseated respected former Sen. Charles Percy, R-Ill. On the other hand, President Bush is not known for his expertise on world affairs, and a strong and knowledgeable foil to Bush on the Foreign Relations Committee could prove formidable.

"There are two overriding issues Senator Biden has said he has had concern about since President Bush took office -- missile defense and criminal justice issues, as well as the Supreme Court," says Biden spokesman Norm Kurz. "A lot of members pointed to Judiciary and said, 'Joe, this is where the action is, it will get a lot of attention and you could make a difference.' It was tempting."

The Judiciary Committee -- where high drama like the Clarence Thomas hearings often plays out -- will be the high-visibility battleground for all of Bush's judicial nominees. It is the locale where Bush's plans have met with the most serious and effective Democratic opposition yet.

But Biden's jump to the Judiciary post would also have started a case of musical chairs that could have hurt other colleagues. Leahy would have probably then taken the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee, which would have displaced Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Harkin, one of the Democratic caucus's most vulnerable members, faces a tough reelection race against Rep. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, a moderate who is the House sponsor of the HMO patients bill of rights. With such competition, Harkin needs all the help he can get, and that includes retaining the Agriculture chairmanship, an impressive position for the farmers back home.

With these factors in mind, Biden was eventually given chairmanship of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs -- a subcommittee, ironically, that Biden had phased out when he was Judiciary chairman so that he could preside over the relevant hearings in full committee.

The crime subcommittee was likely to return anyhow, but meeting Biden's needs certainly played a role in its re-creation.

A subsequent Biden press release, "Biden Announces Major New Role on Judiciary Committee," hyped his role on the crime subcommittee chairmanship while announcing that he would "also" chair Foreign Relations.

From this new perch, Biden has already spoken out against President Bush's lack of financial support for the COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) program, which provided block grants for communities to put more policemen on the street. Biden spokesman Kurz says that his boss will focus on COPS -- the original bill for which he drafted -- as well as juvenile justice, drugs and domestic violence. Biden's Foreign Relations Committee, meanwhile, just held a hearing on Macedonia and NATO, and "next Wednesday [Secretary of State] Colin Powell will be the sole witness at a hearing about U.S. security in Europe," says Kurz. "This will follow the return of the president from his trip to Europe so I think it will be pretty high profile." Additionally, hearings on Bush's plans for a national missile defense will probably begin in early July.

Edwards and Bayh, both elected in 1998, are possible presidential contenders, but because of their short tenure they're S.O.L. when it comes to committee chairmanships. But they, too, will see some benefits coming from the Democrats' taking charge. Edwards' highest-profile piece of legislation -- the HMO patients bill of rights he's worked on with Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz. -- now stands a far greater chance of being scheduled for a vote than it ever did when Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., was in charge. There is also some talk about Edwards joining the Judiciary Committee, but either way there will be no gavel in his hand.

Bayh, on the other hand, may get a gavel if current arrangements work out. But it's unlikely that he'll be able to use his first likely subcommittee chairmanship, the Banking Committee's subcommittee on international trade and finance, to significantly raise his profile.

Bayh advisors argue that the Hoosier's leadership will be more visible in his chairmanship of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council than from behind a desk at a committee. Bayh spokeswoman Mary Meagher says that Bayh's role as a centrist, trying to broker compromises between the parties, will remain essentially unchanged.

That his role will change very little in the new Senate is a show of his strength, she argues.

"The shift of power might have gone to the Democrats," Meagher says, "but it's still a divided Senate and there's still therefore a unique role in the Senate for moderates to play." Bayh worked with all factions -- the White House, Senate Republicans, Kennedy and Lieberman -- on the education bill that passed the Senate Thursday afternoon 91-8; Meagher says Bayh will likely play a similar role when the Senate takes up welfare reform next year.

And then, of course, there's the senator who may be the truest beneficiary of the Democrats' leap to Senate power, the one Edwards is working with on the patients bill of rights, the one teaming with Lieberman to close the gun show loophole, and with Kerry to tackle the thorny issue of Internet privacy. He just hosted Daschle at his ranch house, and wonks affiliated with his shop have been rapping with wonks affiliated with Bayh and the DLC about a national service bill.

He's the man every Democrat in Washington wants to stand next to for ricochet media. But John McCain says that he has no intention of running for president. At least for now.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------