Gone with 2001 is the warm and fuzzy spirit of bipartisanship that marked much of the last three months of the year in Washington. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., turned the page on a new year and came out swinging on Friday, in a speech to the Center for National Policy that blamed the GOP, and President Bush's tax cut, for growing budget deficits. Republicans responded in kind, and Campaign 2002 officially began.
"Unfortunately, last spring, Republicans chose exactly the wrong solution. They made a huge tax cut their number one priority -- ahead of everything else -- and discarded the framework of fiscal responsibility," Daschle told his Washington audience. "Sept. 11 and the war aren't the only reasons the surplus is nearly gone. They're not even the biggest reasons. The biggest reason is the tax cut."
"At a time when we need to fight both a war and a recession, when our nation has urgent needs on all fronts, the tax cut has taken away our flexibility and left us with only two choices, both of them bad," Daschle said.
Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, immediately hit back at Daschle for "taking advantage of his obstructionist tactics to score partisan political points. I am very disappointed that Senator Daschle has resorted to finger pointing rather than working together to get Americans back to work."
Daschle's outline of the Democrats' economic plan comes in anticipation of this month's State of the Union address, where President Bush will sketch the GOP budget priorities for the coming year. It also marked a new aggressiveness from the Democrats, who have seemed paralyzed as they've tried to fight a president buoyed by public support for the war on terrorism.
But the speech also capped a turbulent week for Daschle, who increasingly has a target affixed to his back as the Republicans look for a foil in 2002.
Wednesday's New York Times featured a front-page article detailing Daschle's shepherding of a bill which protects South Dakota-based Homestake Mining from any environmental lawsuits for damage the company may have done by digging for gold in the Black Hills for the last 125 years. The measure was tacked on to the 2002 Defense Department appropriations bill.
The bill sailed through with large bipartisan majorities, but also received some bipartisan criticism as a sweetheart deal for the influential company from Daschle's home state. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, criticized Daschle, not so much for the legislation itself, but for the senator's hypocrisy.
"You have Senator Daschle feigning moral outrage over limitations on liability in anti-terrorism insurance," Armey told the Times. "Yet he comes right back on behalf of a special interest in his own state and says, 'I want liability limitations.'"
Republicans still blame Daschle for killing an economic stimulus package late last year. Daschle said the deal was a giveaway to corporate interests and the wealthiest Americans.
Republicans responded in a unified chorus, accusing Daschle of deliberately trying to kill a stimulus package to score political points for Democrats heading into the 2002 elections.
"Senator Daschle is delaying America's economic recovery and threatening America's job security," said Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.
"Tom Daschle, unfortunately, has decided ... to be more of an obstructionist," echoed Vice President Dick Cheney on "Meet the Press" last month.
But that GOP criticism, more than anything else, may be the clearest sign yet that Republicans feel the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination is Daschle's to lose.
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