When South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle became minority leader of the Senate in 1994, expectations couldn't have been much lower. After all, Daschle was one of the greenest leaders in congressional history: at 47, in just his second term in the Senate, he had never even chaired a committee. His supporters had been mostly from the younger generation of Senators elected in his class. After he squeaked into the leader's job by a one-vote margin, elder Democrats tittered behind the scenes, sure he would turn to putty in the masterly hands of majority leader Bob Dole.
But behind closed doors, the man typically referred to as the "mild-mannered Midwesterner" proved just as fiercely partisan as his predecessors. He quickly managed to unify his party against the 1995 "Republican Revolution"--stopping dead a series of Contract with America bills that had sailed through the House. When Dole griped about the way he stalled Republican initiatives by tacking on unrelated amendments, Daschle retorted, "Welcome to the Senate, Senator Dole." Even West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, who had opposed Daschle's initial ascent to leader, renominated him for the post in 1996. Said he: "I was totally wrong about this young man. He has steel in his spine, despite his reasonable and modest demeanor."
Now that Daschle is facing the most divided Senate of his career, his polite but dogged approach could be even more vital. Over the past six years, Daschle has perfected a delicate dance, appearing at once a party loyalist and a diplomat. He has developed an unusually collegial relationship with Republican leader Trent Lott. Even during the mortifying impeachment crisis, for example, Daschle corralled the Democrats behind Clinton while still criticizing the White House's "legal hairsplitting," a term generally wielded by Republicans.
Some of that collegiality evaporated during this heated election year, as Lott and Daschle clashed publicly on the floor of the Senate. "It's the least productive, most frustrating Congress that I have experienced," Daschle complained last month. Of course, it may be nothing compared with what he will face if the Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. Anticipating that possibility, Daschle last week proposed a brazenly optimistic power-sharing plan in which both parties would co-chair committees.
Having spent virtually his entire career in Congress--first as a Senate staff member, then as a House member, before winning a Senate seat in 1986--Daschle remains hopeful that whatever the outcome of the disputed election, he can get action on a patient's bill of rights and campaign-finance reform, which have long been stalled. In an interview with TIME on Friday, Daschle said there are just two options for the new Senate: paralysis by gridlock or a miraculous display of bipartisanship. "I think the odds are against the prospect of real bipartisanship," he admitted, "but it's worth trying to beat the odds."
--By Amanda Ripley