WASHINGTON – A few hours after Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle left the White House pledging cooperation on Iraq, he used the Senate floor to launch his own attack on what he called President Bush's "atrocious" economic record.
Daschle, D-S.D., accused Bush of doing little to spur the listless economy or address job and stock market losses, eroded retirement accounts and vanishing budget surpluses.
"As important as the war on Iraq, or the effort on Iraq -- I won't call it a war, because God forbid we go to war -- but regardless of what it is we do on Iraq and the war on terror, I hope that this administration can dedicate some of its time each week to economic security as well," Daschle said in a 35-minute speech dedicated to finding an election-year issue Democrats can sink their teeth into.
"It takes leadership not only with regard to international and foreign policy, but to help here at home on economic policy as well. We haven't seen it to date," he added.
Armed with more than a dozen charts, Daschle argued that since January 2001, America has lost 2 million jobs, growth has been at an anemic 1 percent, $4.5 trillion has been lost in the stock market and workers' retirement savings and consumer confidence have both dropped.
On top of that, he said, the administration has taken the country from a $5.6 trillion government surplus to a $400 billion deficit.
"What does that do to the overall psychology in the economy, to see this precipitous a decline?" he asked.
The Senate's top Republican responded by largely conceding the facts to Daschle, and asking him what he would do about them.
"Even if you accept all that as being a problem, and a lot of it is, what is your plan?" Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said. "The only proposal I have heard from some Democrats as to what we should do to be helpful in the economy is to spend more, always add more money."
That echoed comments by Daschle that while health care costs and foreclosures are on the rise, and the government is once again spending Social Security surpluses to pay for other programs, Republicans have only one solution.
"They have one economic all-purpose antidote for everything, and that is tax cuts. Tax cuts largely dedicated to those at the very top," Daschle said, sounding a familiar Democratic theme.
Lott might have challenged some of Daschle's data as deceptive. For example, Daschle said the current administration is the only one in 50 years to lose private sector jobs. But Daschle's chart tallied Bush's first 18 months in office against other presidents' entire terms.
As party leader, Daschle is interested in expanding the Senate Democrats' one-vote margin over Republicans. Races in many states are too close to call right now to predict who could emerge with control of the Senate and GOP-run House, so Democrats are looking for a partisan issue with which to draw talk away from Iraq.
Daschle also seemed to fault his own party, whose control of the Senate produced a tax cut Daschle opposed but not the minimum wage hike he supports.
"Can we get a minimum wage vote on this floor?" Daschle asked. "No, but we can get support for that $53,000 tax cut for the top one percent."
Republicans might also have pointed to the government's latest data showing exports of goods and services grew while imports fell in July.
That raised expectations for better-than-expected third quarter growth. But at the White House, the budget director instead pointed to low interest rates and inflation and dismissed Daschle's offensive as an election-year "tantrum."
"The contentions he raised I don't view as serious at all. He knows the recession was well underway before George Bush took oath of office," said Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels.
In a written statement, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said Daschle ignored "the Democrats' real desire to increase taxes to pay for more spending."
Some Democrats -- though not Daschle -- have suggested blocking parts of last year's tax cut that have yet to take effect.
"Senator Daschle, the American people don't want more political speeches. They want tangible results," Hastert said.
Fox News' James Rosen and the Associated Press contributed to this report.