Monday, September 20, 2004

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle is the “chief obstructionist,” who plays a “block and blame game” to defeat legislation and attack President Bush in Washington, then embraces the Republican administration in his re-election bid in South Dakota, his challenger said yesterday.

In their first debate — nationally televised on NBC’s “Meet the Press” — former South Dakota Rep. John Thune, a Republican, accused the incumbent Democrat of flip-flopping when it comes to working with the Republican White House.

“Tom is literally running out of the arms of Michael Moore into the arms of the president in South Dakota,” Mr. Thune said.

“In Washington, D.C., he’s attacking the president, blocking the president’s agenda, and in South Dakota, he’s hugging the president,” the challenger said. “Every time the president has extended his hand in friendship to Senator Daschle, he’s bit it off.”

Mr. Daschle said he only disagreed with the president when he felt the administration’s policies were bad for South Dakota, and called Mr. Thune a “follower” who would “rubber-stamp” the president’s policies.

“I think there’s something to be said for following, but you’ve got to be more than a follower in the United States Senate,” he said.

“You can’t be a follower and you can’t just rubber-stamp what this administration is doing. And that’s exactly what John would like to do, but we can’t. South Dakota expects more than that,” Mr. Daschle said.

Mr. Bush is popular in South Dakota — he won 60 percent of the vote there in 2000 — and Mr. Thune said it was “amazing and remarkable” that as the Democratic leader in the Senate, Mr. Daschle would “throw John Kerry overboard in order to help himself in South Dakota.”

“It is an effort to connect himself and tie himself to a president who is popular in South Dakota at a time when he’s running for re-election, while the record is very clear that, when he’s in Washington, D.C., the record is one of attack, criticize, block, obstruct,” Mr. Thune said.

Mr. Daschle said his agreements and disagreements with the president are based on issues.

“There are times when I will agree with the president, as I did with 9/11. There are times when we work together: the farm bill, the healthy-forests bill. We worked on a number of things, and we’ve done it constructively,” Mr. Daschle said.

“But there are times when I have to oppose this president. I opposed him when he was wrong on the drought [relief] for South Dakota. I opposed him on the highway bill that he opposes for South Dakota, I’ve opposed him on the Medicare drug benefit and many other times when I think you have to stand up and you have to do what’s right for South Dakota. You can’t just follow this president without questioning whether or not it’s good for South Dakota,” Mr. Daschle said.

The two candidates disagreed yesterday on nearly every issue, including the war in Iraq, judicial confirmations, drought aid and the energy bill. The only issue on which both agreed was that a rollback of the gasoline tax would take federal dollars away from South Dakota road projects and both would keep the tax as it stands.

Mr. Daschle’s criticisms of the president’s Iraq policy “embolden the enemy” and “completely undermine the morale of our troops,” Mr. Thune said. Mr. Daschle called that remark “disappointing.”

“John’s attacks on me, where I come from, would earn a trip to the woodshed. He knows that’s wrong. His effort to demonize me won’t work in South Dakota. I take this personally,” Mr. Daschle said.

International cooperation is necessary to win the war in Iraq, and the administration has failed to adequately supply troops with necessary equipment, he said.

“I think it’s amazing that we’re using sandbags and plywood in our Humvees and we’re doing bake sales for body armor. We’re not giving the military equipment that they [need] to run this war,” Mr. Daschle said.

“We’ve got to provide our troops more equipment. We’ve got to listen to our military commanders. We’ve got to have better intelligence. We’ve got to make sure that we involve the international community in burden-sharing a lot more than we are. That’s the kind of way we’re going to do better at this war in the future,” he said.

The international community is responding, said Mr. Thune, who stands behind President Bush’s policy to build an interim government in Iraq and hold elections.

“This is not a time to cut and run. This is a time to show resolve,” he said.

“The United States, as the leader of the free world, has to stay strong. We have to stay resolute. We need to finish the job. If we don’t, the terrorists are going to prevail. And I think that spells disaster for the people of the United States and for our national security,” Mr. Thune said.

He cited a Wall Street Journal editorial that called the Senate a “Daschle Dead Zone” where key legislation — including medical malpractice reform and the energy bill — is “dying” because of Democrats’ obstruction tactics.

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